At some point after Carmel received its 2014 football schedule, Todd Cayea told a joke that, to him, wasn’t necessarily that funny.
His Rams had been assigned seven games in Class AA, the largest classification in the state. Three of them pitted his team against three of the four largest high schools in Section 1, which also happened to be among the 12 largest schools in the state.
“I was closer in enrollment to Croton-Harmon than half the teams on my schedule,” said Cayea, comparing Carmel to Class B (and, until somewhat recently, Class C) Croton. “Now, if I went down and played Class B schools, imagine what those teams would say?”
This fall, that type of enrollment disparity led the NYSPHSAA, the state’s largest governing body for high school sports, to consider a proposal to expand football to six classes. Under the proposal, the sport would create a Class AAA, an addition that, in my opinion, is a long time coming for a sport crumbling under the weight of safety concerns and competitive disadvantages.
Just two weeks ago, Ossining, the smallest Class AA school in Section 1 football, met New Rochelle, the largest, in Class AA’s qualifying round. Ossining played the varsity game, but requested that New Rochelle find another JV opponent out of fear for its players’ safety.
“We were fine, but the New Rochelle JV was on a totally different level than ours,” Ossining coach Dan Ricci said. “Teams we’d lose to in a decent game, they were beating 40-something to nothing.”
At the very top of Section 1, those physical and competitive advantages have been clear for years. No team outside the top six in enrollment has won Class AA since Carmel in 1998. The preeminent power, New Rochelle, which is again this year’s championship favorite, is more than twice the size of 12 of the section’s 19 Class AA schools this year. Arlington, North Rockland and Mount Vernon are not much further behind.
Even semifinalists like Clarkstown North, which enters Friday night’s game at John Jay-East Fishkill 7-1, are rare and often require a perfect storm of circumstances to even challenge for a berth in a sectional final.
This year, the Rams have 23 seniors and have enjoyed the type of injury luck that has turned against them in the past.
“To be able to play the New Rochelles, the John Jays, the North Rocklands, you have to be healthy during the season,” Clarkstown North coach Joe Trongone said.
Player safety and enrollment disparity in Classes AA and D were the main issues that led the state’s football committee to propose a six-class system. The NYSPHSAA’s executive committee considered the proposal at last week’s meeting but opted to table the discussion. Instead, the state will reconvene its dormant Championship Philosophy Committee on Dec. 3 to consider the six-class proposal and other options before the executive committee meets again in late January.
The Championship Philosophy Committee is expected to give its recommendations for the executive committee to consider. According to NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas, the state has no guidelines for a six-class system and would need to establish a rationale for why football — with just 431 schools participating — should be treated differently than other sports. (Boys basketball, for example, has over 700 active schools under the NYSPHSAA umbrella.)
“That’s the question right now,” Zayas said. “If we treat football differently, why are we treating football differently? As soon as we give football the opportunity to have six classes, basketball is going to ask for the same thing. Other sports as well.”
Because of those complications, Zayas said the state is unlikely to adopt a six-class system until the 2017-18 school year, if at all. The state’s football committee has been asked to review enrollment numbers and prepare to play with five classes next fall.
“There are quite a few possibilities right now,” he said. “The important thing is that the Championship Philosophy Committee comes in and look at things the way they should be and not just the way they are.”
And, in this case, subtle changes also aren’t enough. The physical nature of football alone should lead the state to treat it as an outlier. According to statistics reported by the Center for Disease Control in 2012, 47 percent of high school sports concussions occur in high school football.
“I think that’s what really driving it,” Cayea said. “The reason football is enrollment-based is because of safety issues. They’re not going to put us against Pawling or Haldane. No disrespect to those programs, but you just can’t do that. And the discrepancy in ‘AA’ right now is ridiculous.”
Current football classifications, 2015-16
Class AA: 930 and up
Class A: 570-929
Class B: 365-569
Class C: 240-364
Class D: 239 and below
Class AAA: 1,100 and up
Class AA: 740-1,099
Class A: 455-739
Class B: 340-454
Class C: 225-339
Class D: 224 and below
Enrollments totals are based on BEDS Numbers from the State Education Department and include students in grades 9-11.