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WNY high school football to continue with federation play, for now

Na’shon Oliver, a senior football player at Buffalo's Bennett High School, speaks at a press conference Monday while his coach, Steve McDuffie, and South Park Coach Tim Delaney look on.";

The Section VI Football Federation announced Monday it will delay a recent decision to return to league play—a move that would have left Buffalo teams without a league to play in.

The announcement followed widespread outcry from Buffalo residents and Buffalo Public Schools’ filing of an official petition to Section VI last Friday. It also came shortly after a press conference Monday morning at P.S. #363 Lewis J. Bennett School of Innovative Technology, where several local elected officials and Buffalo Bills legend Thurman Thomas all called for an immediate reversal of the decision.

“Everyone should realize that this decision is not right,” said State Senator Tim Kennedy (D—Buffalo). “This is a decision that needs to be reversed whether you live in the city of Buffalo or not. All of our children are impacted. The next generation of leaders are impacted, and we have to make sure that the right thing, in this very moment, is done.”

Credit Emyle Watkins / WBFO News
Buffalo Bills legend Thurman Thomas joins local elected officials in calling for the reversal of Section VI's decision to return to league play.

The message of doing the right thing in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated Monday, was echoed by several speakers, including New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D—Buffalo). She said athletics represent an opportunity to learn about oneself and each other.

“If we begin separating ourselves again, that’s not going to get us to where we need to be in this society.”

Credit Emyle Watkins / WBFO News
New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes speaks Monday, with State Senator Tim Kennedy (left) and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (right) in support.

On Jan. 3, the Section VI Football Federation announced that its member districts had voted to return to league play in order to reduce team travel and associated costs. The federation also hoped to boost game attendance by reigniting old rivalries. Buffalo Public Schools was allocated four votes out of 30 and voted ‘no,’ but the vote passed 19-11.

Buffalo disbanded its local Harvard Cup football league 10 years ago in order to join Section VI. Still, the move to league play might not have caused such an uproar if Buffalo had been allowed to join the Erie County Interscholastic Conference (ECIC), the league in which the county’s other teams play. ECIC denied Buffalo’s petition last week, prompting outrage by Buffalo residents, the school board and teachers union.

Many opponents claimed the combination of the decisions amounted to racial injustice because students of color in inner-city Buffalo would suffer most from a lack of competition and less exposure to college recruiters.

Credit Emyle Watkins / WBFO News
Student athlete Na’shon Oliver speaks to WBFO's Kyle Mackie.

“We’ve been working so hard for so many years to get where we are now, and we look at football as a lifestyle,” said Na’shon Oliver, a senior football player at Bennett High School who spoke at Monday’s press conference. “For them to take away this opportunity from us is unfair. And I don’t want to say that it’s a racial thing but I honestly feel like it’s a racial thing…they want all the opportunities to be kept within suburban schools in the suburban area.”

Oliver’s been offered football scholarships at Boston College, Louisiana State University, the University at Buffalo, Syracuse University and others, and now he worries his younger teammates might not get the same shot.

“I have been blessed with scholarships from multiple schools solely because of who we are and because of our talent that we have,” Oliver said. “With us being taken out of Section VI, that’s taking away future opportunities for my brothers that are playing. And I don’t feel as though that is right.”

As former acting athletics director for Buffalo Public Schools Aníbal Soler explained at last week’s Buffalo Board of Education meeting, the district is not being removed from Section VI.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
A group of Buffalo residents organizing as the Coalition for Fair, Free & Equitable Athletics pray together after speaking in opposition to the Section VI decision at a Buffalo school board meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 15.

“They forced everyone to go into their own leagues now. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have it anymore. We didn’t have the Harvard to lean back on,” Soler said. “We also don’t have the same number of programs, you know, program schools have changed and shut down, reconfigured. So, we used to have a rich menu of teams and now we’re down to five.”

Along with Bennett, the remaining Buffalo teams are P.S. #206 South Park High School, P.S. #305 McKinley High School, P.S. #301 Burgard High School and P.S. #304 Hutchinson Central Technical High School (Hutch-Tech).

The statement Section VI released Monday said it is delaying the return to league-based play and that the 2020-2021 high school football season will proceed as it has for the past 10 years, according to federation play.

The statement reads:

“The decision to return high school football to league-based play was carefully considered and followed a transparent process through which all Section VI members were provided opportunities for input. Returning high school football to league-based play would reduce travel time and costs for the 63 football teams in Section VI, and would also enhance league rivalries, increase the significance of games for playoff eligibility, foster increased attendance and facilitate long-term scheduling. Nonetheless, the Section values the perspectives and concerns that have been presented by the Buffalo Public Schools as a continuing Section VI member. The Executive Committee believes that this morning’s action to delay any implementation of the return to league-based play will provide an opportunity to engage in on-going meaningful dialogue with the BPS, as well as the Section’s other members, and to ultimately ensure that a return to league-based play addresses the concerns of the BPS while enhancing the opportunities and experiences of the student-athletes who participate in high school football within the Section.”

Mayor Brown released his own statement in response:

“In reversing its decision to exclude students from the City of Buffalo from competing against their neighbors and friends, Section VI confirms what we all know too well: diversity is our strength. And on the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let us rejoice in the news that, together, this City and this Region came together to do what is right.”

Buffalo Public Schools staff confirmed that a previously-scheduled meeting among all of the involved parties, including representatives from the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, is still set for Tuesday.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.