Teachers strike carries risks for young athletes

CHICAGO (AP) — Deandre Welch understands how a teachers strike might cause him to miss a few high school football practices and even a scheduled game. But the senior wide receiver certainly didn’t think the walkout would threaten his plans to pay for college.

“Football is basically my way to get into college,” Welch said. “I’m applying to schools, and some are asking for film of my senior games. If the strike continues, I won’t be able to send in that film.”

The strike in the nation’s third-largest school district could have unintended consequences for Chicago students whose college dreams are tied to their actions on the playing field.

As a captain of the team at Foreman High School on the city’s West Side, Johnny Daniels didn’t wait for a strike resolution to get back on the field. He knew his teammates needed to practice.

So he called them. Or he tweeted. He sent text messages and left Facebook posts. He did whatever he could to get athletes to come out for unofficial practices, which have been going on daily, without any coaches, since the strike began.

“We always have to be ready,” said Daniels, a senior who’s ranked as a top player in his division. “We practice the same as if the coaches were here. A lot of these kids look up to me. I still want to be there for them.”

Daniels said the strike, which has so far canceled nearly a week of classes for more than 350,000 students, has frustrated high hopes for the season.

“It’s delaying our opportunities,” he said.

For now, the strike means canceled practices and games for the 11,000 students enrolled in fall varsity sports, which also include golf, soccer, softball and volleyball.

But the effects will widen if classes don’t resume soon, said officials with Chicago Public Schools. Late last month, the district requested a waiver from the Illinois High School Association to allow sports activity despite a possible strike. The waiver was denied on Monday, the first day of the strike.

The association reiterated a longstanding rule that schools cannot participate in sports during a teachers strike. Executive Director Marty Hickman said the bylaw has been in place for years during strikes in other districts.

“It’s really that simple, to be honest with you,” he said. “This is fairly well-known around our state. Sometimes people who are on strike for the first time are surprised.”

Welch, a senior from Westinghouse College Prep on the city’s West Side, said he was excited about the strike until it canceled his team’s game on Saturday.

“I thought it might be a nice break from school,” he said. “One or two days, fine. But three or four days? A week? It’s too much. Forget the strike, let’s go back to school.”

In a letter to Hickman, Chicago schools Chief of Staff Robert Boik said the strike could force game forfeits that may jeopardize playoff and championship opportunities and even the academic success of students whose college education may depend on athletic scholarships.

In their world, sports are part of a bigger plan for improving their lives and livelihood.

“It’s the way I’m going to help my family in the future,” Daniels said. “Football is a part of my life. I really can’t live without it.”

A prolonged strike could have the greatest impact on football. High schools are required to play nine games to be considered for state playoffs. District officials said there are plans to make up missed games, but that gets more complicated by IHSA rules that specify the number of practices before games resume.

The longer the strike drags on, the longer the hold on resumed play.

“I’m trying to take football as far as I can take it,” said Antonio Posey, a junior playing for Foreman. “I really want my shine to be now, and for it to follow me through senior year. This strike is messing up a lot that I had planned for the season.”

Though the IHSA denied the school district’s request for a waiver, there is a rule that would allow the Chicago school board to approve sports practices with credentialed staff. But that might be difficult, since 90 percent of coaches are union members.

Hickman isn’t surprised to hear that some students are running their own practices.

“They’ve been working hard for months to get ready for the contests. They don’t want to let that go,” he said. “It’s one of the difficult parts for kids to accept when it comes down to a strike. They have no control of this situation.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.