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Commentary : Called Strike Could End Season but Lessons Learned May Linger

<i> Times Staff Writers </i>

Troubled City Section coaches who have agonized over their options as Monday’s strike date approaches should take heart. If nothing else turns out right for them, officials of Los Angeles Unified School District have given them ample reason to believe that sports are, indeed, more important than academics.

How else can one interpret a district stance that would allow coaches to direct their teams after school even if they participate in the proposed United Teachers-Los Angeles strike? The games apparently mean a lot to school officials.

The district scrambled during the week to round up as many warm bodies as possible to throw into the breach if the strike is not averted. Officials launched a $40,000 advertising campaign this past week to recruit substitute teachers. Of course, the new teachers won’t be asked to do much more than baby-sit. The district has said that most classroom work will cover review material.

Some administrators, most of whom have assiduously avoided the classroom for years, will be thrown back to the students, and others will become $60,000-a-year hall monitors. Many students already have turned in their books and may spend most of their class time watching movies.

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Hey, but that’s just academics. Why worry about the insignificant? If a science class is in the midst of an important experiment, that result will keep. English students in the middle of a novel? Mark your place and we’ll get back to you.

But different rules apparently apply for sports. In the face of massive plans to deal with the strike in the classroom, the district plans business as usual on the sports field, insisting that the City playoffs must go on.

The district has canceled bus service for midday trips, so a field trip to a museum or an art gallery has been scrapped. But those same buses will be ready to roll when it’s time to get the softball team to a game. Now what does that tell you about priorities?

The district’s stance on athletics runs counter to the policy adopted for the 1970 strike when coaches who participated in the walkout were ordered to the sidelines. Board and district officials claim that they switched gears this time in order to give coaches the option of staying with their teams.

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That argument doesn’t ring true. Many coaches claim that the district is trying to undermine union solidarity by encouraging them to cross picket lines to keep up appearances. How bad can things be at the local high school if the baseball team is still playing?

Coaches also claim that the district is attempting to shift the burden of blame for canceled games from the district to coaches. Phone calls from angry parents can be rerouted to the coaches. Let them take the heat.

Valley baseball coaches apparently aren’t biting. Of the area’s 17 coaches, 13 have agreed to boycott Tuesday’s games that mark the end of the regular season. Baseball coaches from the City’s 49 schools have been invited to a meeting Monday to discuss plans for the playoffs.

Boycotting one regular-season game is a bold stance, given the risks. Not only do coaches run the danger of alienating disappointed parents, they are testing the loyalty of their players.

Coaches take a hard-sell approach to the concepts of commitment, dedication and team unity. If they walk away from games this year, what effect will that have not only on this year’s players, but next year’s team? When a coach sets team rules at the first practice next year, will players demand a commitment from the coach to see them through the entire season?

No doubt, baseball coaches took those fears into consideration when they agreed to boycott. And those concerns likely will weigh on their minds when they consider the future of the playoffs at Monday’s meeting. Few sports fans will protest if they decide to end the boycott and return to their teams for the playoffs.

But if they return, they will miss an opportunity to say something important about the values that athletics are supposed to instill. What’s wrong with ending the season now? Most Valley teams that have qualified for the playoffs already have played at least 20 games. Most of the worthy players already have earned college scholarships, and everyone has had ample opportunity to demonstrate their skills.

The compelling reason to return is to crown a champion, for one team to win it all. The desire to be the best strikes a vibrant chord in many of us.

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But if sports are about learning values such as teamwork, fair play, discipline and the joy of participation--the virtues coaches always talk about--haven’t they been learned already? What’s wrong with letting the players walk away now with their qualified successes? Let their lasting memories of their high school careers center on the friendships made and the experiences shared rather than the final won-lost record.

If the decision to suspend the games prompts a vehement cry from players who clamor for a winner at any cost, maybe those lessons haven’t been taught well enough.


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