A Chorus of Boos by Christopher Yin
Normally at a League Finals awards ceremony, you expect to hear cheers and applause. It’s a celebration of student accomplishments, the culmination to thousands of hours of dedicated training, and athletes have every right to be excited for each other. But this year, the Sunset League Cross Country Finals awards ceremony did not begin with any applause. In fact, it was quite the opposite- the ceremony started with a chorus of boos.
Why would students and parents alike seek to mar this celebratory occasion by verbalizing their disapproval in such a manner? It’s because of a new policy that the Sunset League has decided to implement. In previous years, the top ten runners in the frosh/soph, JV, and Varsity levels were recognized at the League Finals awards ceremony with medals. Now, however, the new policy states that only the top three Varsity runners can be officially recognized. This was announced apologetically to the roughly four hundred runners constituting the Sunset League’s cross country program, after many had finished their final race of the season, and some of their entire high school running career. Students- myself included- were understandably confused. What could possibly be the reason behind recognizing fewer athletes? At first glance, it just didn’t seem to make any sense. So, in order to find out more about the policy and the motivations behind it, I interviewed both Edison’s principal, Dr. Melendrez, and Athletic Director (AD), Coach Boyce.
* * *
Me: I was wondering if you could explain to me the specifics of this new policy, and how it got started. What was the impetus for this change in policy, and what was the perceived problem that prompted this response?
Dr. Melendrez: That’s a great question, and it’s multilayered. Okay, I’ll do the best I can. Edison High School is part of the Sunset League. There are six schools in the Sunset League- Edison, Marina, Huntington, Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos, and Newport Harbor. The Sunset League has a constitution, which includes all the agreed-to rules for each of the sports and all the awards given. We have a Sunset League budget, and all six schools put money into the budget to pay for awards. Over time, due to the economy, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pay bills; we have to pay more for referees now, so we have to look at our budget and adjust.
Coach Boyce: You know, everything’s gone up, to be honest with you, and I don’t want to say exactly, but if you have somebody who’s doing, let’s say, a frosh/soph basketball game back to back, they’re making almost a hundred- well, I don’t want to say. A lot of money. They’re making a lot of money. And every year they get a raise. Well, if you look at our school, we haven’t raised prices on most anything in a long, long time. We kind of try to stay the same because we want all kids to have everything. When those things happen, we have to make a decision somewhere along the lines what to cut. And unfortunately sometimes the things we cut aren’t popular things, but they’re not meant to hurt people or anything, they’re just the economic choice. That’s what sometimes we have to do.
Dr. Melendrez: Research was done by the athletic directors- and that’s where all of the discussions begin for Sunset League business. The athletic directors from the six schools will do research and put things on the agenda, and it’s brought to the principals, and the principals vote on changes to the constitution. So our athletic directors, they did some research on this, and they looked at other leagues in Orange County, and the other leagues in Orange County for the most part do not give any medals- League medals- beyond third place. And it was impacting boys cross country, girls cross country, swim- do you know how many events are in swim?
Me: Eleven, I think, or about eleven.
Dr. Melendrez: Yeah, and then they’re giving what, up to seven places or whatever for each event. So they analyzed the budget, they looked at what other leagues were doing, and said, “You know, we could save $3000 in our league budget.” And we’d be more consistent with other leagues.
Coach Boyce: We had a meeting with the CIF commissioner, and he said that the Sunset League is the only league that he can think of that doesn’t just award first through third. So, the Sunset League decided, well, we’re going to save some money and do some other great things by eliminating medals for lower levels, as well as medals past third place.
Dr. Melendrez: The problem I think that happened was, this was voted into our constitution…I want to say March. And the athletic directors knew about it. I don’t know if they all told their coaches, and Mr. Boyce will have to tell you the coaches should have communicated that to their players, prior to the run. I’m heartsick that kids found out after they ran the race that there’s only three places. That’s not the way it should have been; it should have been clearly communicated. And maybe it was, and certain students weren’t there, that kind of thing. The other piece of this is because we did this, we were able to add a new award…it’s a League Scholar Athlete Award. So this is going to be new, and it will be an award for athletes, Varsity level athletes in the Sunset League, who have a certain GPA. I think it’s 3.75 or 3.74, but it’s a really prestigious scholar athlete award and we’ve never had anything like that in the Sunset League. So that’s where we wanted to put the emphasis.
Coach Boyce: Yes, it’s the All Academic Sunset League. So every Varsity Athlete with a 3.75 unweighted GPA in their season of sport will be honored as an All Academic Sunset League and get one of the nicest patches I’ve ever seen.
Dr. Melendrez: Going back to the medals, we did tell the athletic directors of all the schools that they certainly could give a special award at their school banquet and say, you know, our runner came in fifth place in Finals, and they could give something special at their school awards. That’s fine. But as far as the medals themselves, the Sunset League medals, we just decided to go third place for all sports.
* * *
At this point, I had a better sense of the “why.” And it’s hard to argue with saving money, especially when considering the current state of the economy. Still, I found myself disagreeing with some of the points Dr. Melendrez and Coach Boyce were making. For one, the sport of cross country doesn’t require a referee, and neither do many of the sports with League Finals. It doesn’t strike me as completely fair to penalize these sports in order to finance the sports that do carry the hefty price tag of referees. Also, I don’t think that it’s the best argument to say that just because everyone else is doing it, we should be doing it as well. Homogeneity isn’t necessarily the best goal to strive for; shouldn’t the Sunset League be proud that it is unique in rewarding so many students for their hard work? Lastly, I was a bit unsure about this new All Academic Sunset League recognition. Why unweighted? A GPA of 3.75 is much easier to attain without taking challenging Honors/AP classes. If the goal is to recognize the true scholar athletes, then doesn’t it make sense to raise the requirement to a weighted GPA somewhere above 4.0? However, there was still a lot more to find out about the policy before coming to any final conclusions, so my interviews continued.
* * *
Me: Was any input solicited from students, athletes or coaches while the policy was being considered, and how long was the policy in consideration?
Dr. Melendrez: Coaches. I know coaches, and they researched other leagues. We’re comparing constitutions with other leagues. So it’s not really a student-driven constitution… Again, most of the changes to the constitution come through athletic directors and they usually work with the coaches at the various schools, and they have meetings and do a lot of work before they bring it to the principals and do presentations, and we debate and kick it around. The principals are the ones who vote on it, though. The athletic directors do a lot of the research. I would guess- well, it happened last year. Sometime last year they began the research project.
Coach Boyce: I would say the policy was in consideration for probably three to four months. Looking at the budget and seeing, you know, obviously we have to cut somewhere, the athletic directors decided hey, it is a good idea since we’re the only league that does this; plus, you know, it’s getting to the point where everybody celebrates first, second, and third. Nobody goes all the way to seventh, and it turns out, we got input from the track coaches that the lower level medals- even some of the freshman medals- were going to seventh or eighth or ninth place, and a lot of those didn’t even want them. They kind of just said okay, they didn’t even want to be there for them. So, it was decided that hey, yes, we’ll just go one-two-three!
Me: For cross country, I was talking to some of the coaches, and they had said for their League Finals, they had agreed together that they would be willing to get their booster clubs to pay for the medals personally, but that they were told they were not allowed to do this. I’m not sure if that’s true, or if you have any more information on this?
Dr. Melendrez: They’re not allowed to use the Sunset League medal. Because that belongs only to the Sunset League. An individual coach, that’d be like counterfeit. (laughs) They’d be counterfeiting! But they could do their own medal, it could be an “Edison High School Medal” that could say “Edison High School Honors 5th Place Sunset League Finals.” So they could do that. Now they might not have known. I’m thinking that maybe they came back this school year, maybe there was some bad communication, or it broke down somewhere. But it hurts me that kids were hurt, in not getting the news in advance.
Coach Boyce: Right, Sunset League only provides first, second, and third. If they wanted to do medals for their kids, let’s say an Edison kid came in sixth, and we wanted to provide a sixth place medal for it, they could do it- they just could not do it at League Finals because the Sunset League only recognizes first, second, and third. So if the cross country coach at Newport Harbor, his kids came in sixth and seventh, wanted to come up with a medal for sixth and seventh in League Finals, then they were more than welcome to do that. It just could not be presented at the Sunset League Finals, because the Sunset League only provides first, second, and third and that’s all we recognize. Like most every other league in Orange County.
Me: Yeah, I’m just wondering though, would the coaches be able to pay for medals that were officially Sunset League? It seem as if their medals would have to be basically just school medals, and that they wouldn’t be allowed to have the League recognition symbol.
Coach Boyce: Oh, they could say that they finished seventh place at the Sunset League Finals. It would not have our Sunset League inscription, that the Sunset League has always had, but they could go ahead and do it if they wanted to. But once again the biggest thing is that it happens at the banquets, not at the Finals. Now I understand some kids might have been, you know, expecting like in years past if they finish seventh they get a medal. Now the coaches knew the policy, they should have said to the kids, hey, we’re only acknowledging first, second, and third today. But, like I said, if the coaches wanted to do fourth place in the Sunset League, they could do that at their banquet.
* * *
Here, I didn’t see why coaches and booster clubs couldn’t just pay for the Sunset League medals. For cross country at least, they had clearly demonstrated a willingness to do so. If the money isn’t coming out of the League budget, then what should the administration care? Since the coaches are going to pay for medals, it doesn’t make sense to deny them the ability to purchase official League medals. I understand that money is an issue, but if the money doesn’t have to come from the League…Regardless, the interviews continued.
* * *
Me: Okay, I just want to check, does the policy at all affect team sports that don’t have League Finals? Because I know that there are a lot of sports- I don’t think that football has a League Finals, or basketball-
Dr. Melendrez: There’s only three places in all the other sports. As I understand it, it’s the cross country teams, boys and girls, track and field, and swimming. And that’s why there’s like $3000 for all those medals. You know, we had to pay refs.
Coach Boyce: For team sports, the League only provides a first place plaque. We don’t provide a runner up plaque to the second place basketball team or a runner up for the third place basketball team. We just provide one plaque.
Me: I was just wondering then, do you think that some sports will be disproportionately affected though, because some of the sports do have a lot of athletes in it, so that by limiting the number of athletes that are recognized there, you kind of have- like, for a sport like tennis where they have, I don’t know, I think fifteen people on a team, as compared to cross country where you have about fifty people on the team, do you think that might not necessarily be completely equitable? Was that ever taken into consideration?
Dr. Melendrez: Boy, I don’t know. We debated a long time on this and I can’t recall. We examined it upside down. I don’t remember, I’m sorry.
Me: I know the main sports that were involved in this would be cross country, swim, and track and field-
Coach Boyce: Correct. And wrestling also.
Me: For all of these sports, except for cross country, there are a bunch of different events, and then within each of those events the top three get recognized, right? Like for the different distances in swimming?
Coach Boyce: Correct.
Me: So were you ever considering, when you were discussing the policy, that it might be a bit inequitable, for at least the sport of cross country where there’s only one distance, and there are about 400 athletes, I think, in League, training a lot of hours over summer and through the fall, to only have three recognized?
Coach Boyce: Okay, our thoughts there were obviously yes, we understood that, but also if you think about let’s say – and we also have one of our athletic directors is a swim coach- that some of the medleys and relays and stuff like that, those kids swim all the time, there can be fifty-something kids in a race over and over and over, in that one distance. So there can be half an hour, that same event, over and over and over, and if there’s fifty or sixty kids, they’re not going to recognize top seven or eight, it’s going to be the top three. Do you understand what I’m saying? So, pick any event- hundred yard, freestyle. There may be sixty kids entered in that event, but they race eight at a time, so there might be, say, seven races of that. So we’re still just going to recognize the top three there. Even though I know that there are a lot of events in swimming, it’s the same thing, it’s just one event right there and cross country is just basically one event.
Me: The only thing I’m saying is that when you consider cross country as one event, then there are way more people in that one event than in one event of swimming.
Coach Boyce: That’s true, but listen to it this way. When you run Varsity League Finals at Sunset League, some schools ran seven kids, some schools had ten, some schools maybe had only four or five, right? So you’re saying at a Varsity race with six schools, let’s say an average of say, eight kids. Okay, let’s say nine kids. That’s fifty-four kids, correct? Same thing in swimming; some of those events have maybe sixty kids. Those kids train as hard as cross country kids. It’s like every high school athlete trains hard. It’s the way it is… And in the long run, I’ll be honest with you, we’re not trying to hurt kids, we want kids to strive and shoot for everything. At some point, you know, one of the ADs did bring up a point that nowadays, it seems like every little league and everything, if you finish seventh you get a trophy. Everybody gets a trophy. Everybody strives to be first, second, or third in the Olympics, everybody tries to be top three in League and go to the playoffs, so the ADs thought we should reward those kids. We should make it special. If you finish ninth in the Olympics, you don’t get a ninth place medal. You want to be in the top three. We’re still concerned with all the kids, we want all the kids to enjoy it and strive for everything, but I’ll be honest with you, I had a lot of medals in high school and I couldn’t tell you what they are. It wasn’t a big deal to me. I wanted to be first, second, or third. I want to be in the top three. And you know, I ran cross country when I was in high school. If I didn’t finish first, second, or third- I didn’t care if I finished fourth, I mean what’s the big deal? I want to be in the top three. I wanted to be those guys. I think in the long run it will help kids saying you know what, we wish we could be, we want to finish in the top three. I don’t think any of you guys running cross country ever said “I want to be the seventh place finisher,” right? I want to be that guy who finishes first. So, while we understand that it’s been tradition that we give everyone top seven or anything, and it’s still something we stand for, we want to strive for the top three; and like we said earlier, we’re the only league that was doing that. The medal people- who make the medals- when we asked them, they said “We never have anybody ask for these kind of medals all the way down to seven or anything.” So, it was an economic choice, but it was also a choice to say hey, you know what, time’s are what they are, let’s go for first, second, and third.
* * *
I definitely did not agree with some of the things Coach Boyce was saying. Maybe when he was a runner cross country was a bit different, but now there’s a pretty large distinction between the good and the really good. The extremes are just that- extreme. Last year Edison had Jeff Thies on its team, and he was running three mile races under fifteen minutes; that kind of a runner isn’t very common. There are always going to be a few athletes with insane natural talent, but that doesn’t mean the people below them don’t work equally hard. At Mount SAC Invitational, the largest cross country invitational in America, the top fifteen finishers in frosh/soph, JV, and Varsity all receive medals. If only the top three Varsity runners were to receive medals at this invitational, then a lot of amazing runners and their accomplishments would go unrecognized. Some of the athletes in Southern California might actually be future Olympians; this area is probably the most competitive in the nation for cross country runners. Seventh place is genuinely deserving of recognition in many of these races, and a lot of places beyond seventh represent significant accomplishments as well. I rarely hear runners talking about going for first through third, because for most it just isn’t feasible. And while those who attain these “coveted” spots certainly merit recognition, I don’t see how recognizing additional athletes takes away from their accomplishments; giving a medal for sixth place doesn’t change the fact that an athlete achieved first. In the Olympics, sure, they only give three medals. But high school athletics aren’t the Olympics, and I don’t think it makes sense to treat them in the same way. Rather, I think it only serves to discourage students from trying; if only so few athletes are recognized, then the vast majority of runners are left hanging out to dry. You could argue that personal records are their own reward, but that works both ways. I have a friend on the cross country team who tried his entire high school running career to place high enough to earn a medal, and finally this year he succeeded. But he wasn’t top three; not even close. He worked hard for four years- doesn’t he deserve his award?
* * *
Me: Have you gotten any feedback since the new policy was adopted? I know it’s pretty recent, but…
Coach Boyce: From most everybody- we’re very fortunate one of our ADs is a swim coach, we also have people in track and wrestling and everything- it is something that for people it will be hard to understand in the beginning, but you’ll get used to it in the end. We already have too many people upset; the cross country kids, obviously, were stunned by it because they were the first sport to be affected by it. But, you know, not too much, I think. Kind of like everybody understands it, at some point if you’re going to save over $3000 by doing this, you can afford other things… Dr. Melendrez pointed out that one of the great things that Sunset League is doing now is honoring All Academic Sunset League athletes.
Dr. Melendrez: Well, we haven’t had a Sunset League meeting since those awards. I got feedback from some coaches, I don’t think they realized, and they didn’t understand that they could honor kids, they could honor athletes who placed in the top… twelve you know, at their banquets let’s say. “Here’s a special certificate for placing fifth in the Sunset League Finals,” and they could do that with a school certificate. But I think there was confusion with the coaches, that they could do that, that they had that ability.
Me: This question probably won’t get an answer, but I was wondering, would you ever consider reversing this policy, why or why not? I’m assuming since you haven’t gotten much feedback yet, you don’t necessarily have the grounds to answer this.
Dr. Melendrez: Well, and I don’t have the ability to change it. It’s voted on at the Sunset League meetings. And again, it comes through our athletic directors who work with our coaches. We want to be equitable with the other leagues in the area, and that’s what they’re doing. So we’re trying to be consistent across our leagues and the county. I don’t foresee it changing, at this point. Could it change? Sure. We change our constitution all the time. Every season, the coaches will come to their ADs and go hey, we need to change the start time of the games, or the playoff structure doesn’t work. So we’re always examining the constitution and making changes.
* * *
And thus my interviews concluded; I had my answers. Still…I’m not completely satisfied. I understand that money is a huge issue. But it seems like for at least some sports, there are means of alternate funding available. And it’s hard for me to justify recognizing fewer athletes, despite the arguments made by Dr. Melendrez and Coach Boyce- especially since there are so many athletes competing in the frosh/soph and JV divisions that are slighted by this policy. To me, increasing the exclusivity of awards doesn’t necessarily improve the prestige of the top athletes, but it definitely has negative repercussions for those who finish behind them. In a way, it serves to emphasize that these other athletes are the “losers;” if you’re not top three, then you might as well be last. So while I can appreciate the viewpoint that brought about this change in policy, I have to say that ultimately I’m against it. Maybe I’m in the wrong. Maybe most people will side with the administration on this one. And there are definitely valid points that Dr. Melendrez and Coach Boyce made; I appreciate them both taking the time to participate in my interviews. In the end, though, only time will tell how students and coaches will respond to this new policy. For me, I just can’t help remembering that chorus of boos.