Athletic fields, facilities desperately need updating

A student-athlete lays on the grime-covered weight room floor. She is confined to the weight room because she is barred from practicing with her lacrosse team due to the fact that she fell to the ground running “suicides” on a lumpy, dangerous field the day before. She lifts the disintegrating, rusted bar, and as she moves to put it back, a piece breaks off and she cuts herself. She is not the first to bite the dust on the field or to cover herself in rust, sweat, and grime in the weight room but will she be the first to sue? Or will she be the first to try and change the system that has failed student-athletes and dampened their spirits for years?

Amherst High School athletic facilities are a mess, and everyone knows it. According to an article in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, by Scott Merzbach, in June of 2019, when parents pressed Superintendent Michael Morris to repair them, he said it is a top priority. However, Town Manager Paul Bockelman told the Gazette that though $25,000 should be spent per field per year to maintain them, “the town and schools are not doing that.”

Now, the cost to bring all facilities up to speed, according to Weston & Sampson of Rocky Hill, Connecticut, is “$3.9 million to $6.2 million, to repair the main high school field and build a new track.” 

According to reporter Merzbach, the town plans to fix the fields and track by setting aside $5 million by fiscal year 2022 for field improvements.

Where will this money come from? And what will we do while we wait for the repairs to happen? This fall, parents, coaches, and athletes actually worked to repair some of the fields themselves. 

But this is not a new problem. In 2016, journalism student Jonah Kane wrote a story for The Graphic about the state of athletic fields and facilities at ARHS. He interviewed the athletic director Rich Ferro who said schools like Chicopee end up having much money for sports than Amherst due to financial algorithms used by the state. “The average income in Chicopee is much less than [the average] in Amherst. The state gives Chicopee schools a lot of money to make up for that. In Amherst, we do not get any state funding at all [for athletics].”

In 2016 the overall budget for athletics was about $534,000. Though enticing on paper, around half of that was spent on coaching, officials, drivers, and trainers. Of that half, about $100,000 was spent on contracted services and transportation. 

Then ARHS Athletic Director Rich Ferro said, “when all is said and done, I have maybe $5,000 left. That’s why many teams rely on coaches to buy new equipment for their respective teams because the budget can’t cover every team’s equipment. When I was in high school, they used to hand the hockey coach $2500. Everything we had was brand new.” 

Why are athletics still so important and why is supporting them financially critical? Speaking as a student who earns good grades but needs the push of athletics to open up scholarships for colleges, it concerns me that our facilities and equipment are outdated and that we seem to be able to do nothing as a school or town to change it. 

Our school and town have passed up the chance to enhance our athletic programs many times. Merzbach reported that not just years of neglect but “lack of investment in resources” has led to the quality of current fields.

Tournaments, practices, and games scheduled for sports across many fields have been canceled, creating a crisis where athletes have nowhere to play despite having paid for athletic fees and done fundraisers and many hours supporting the athletes. And athlete injuries on fields continue to be a problem.

According to the ARHS budgeting slides, 2010 vs. 2019 budgeting shows that many departments, like special education, have seen an increase in funding, while facilities and athletics budgets have received less funding.

Why is this a problem? Education does not just happen in a classroom. Sports not only creates a healthy lifestyle and improved emotional health, but they teach time management. They also take students who may look “average” to a college and show how talented, skilled, or dedicated they may be in other arenas.

Five million dollars may seem like a lot of money to invest in athletics, but what is the cost of refusing to do so? Who will be let down? What will the overall losses and damage to students be?

If the district thinks we may need to wait not just weeks or months but years for a solution, what other options exist?

Can parents or community members work together to seek out generous donors who might save our failing fields and facilities?

Will we finally realize the value and importance of our sports programs? Can someone or something lift us out of this rut?