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McGair: Have Thanksgiving football games run their course?

November 15, 2011

The thoughts expressed here are those of sports writer Brendan McGair.

For Rhode Island high school football teams, playing on Thanksgiving is hailed as one of those holiday traditions you can’t live without, it’s so-called importance ranking up there with the Macy’s Day Parade, awkward dinner-time conversations and endless turkey leftovers.
Yet with each succeeding year, it seems the clamor grows louder and more widespread to question the validity of these holiday games. To this particular observer, you can make a pretty compelling case that this ritual has experienced a downturn that stretches back to 1998 and the decision to add an extra round of playoffs, one that’s always set aside for the Tuesday following Turkey Day.
For those teams bound for ‘Tuesday Night Lights,’ there’s nothing remotely to be gained by going full tilt in a game of zero consequence that’s held just a few days prior. The turnaround between games is so close that it wouldn’t come off as a major surprise to learn that coaches are devoting more time and energy to preparing their respective outfits for a contest of much greater significance – which in turn dilutes the Thanksgiving product even further.
“If you’re in the playoffs, the Thanksgiving game is meaningless,” shared one local head coach. “You have to take the bigger picture into account. You’re playing a lot of football in a short period of time, which opens the door for injuries. Plus you could lose momentum heading into the playoffs.”
There are other reasons why the stuffing has been taken right out of Thanksgiving Day football. Only half of these games have league implications hanging in the balance or have some tried-and-true meaning behind them like La Salle-East Providence, Cranston East-Cranston West, Coventry-West Warwick and Westerly-Stonington, Ct. Specifically, these matchups have managed to generate interest due to historic ties and the ability to draw sizeable crowds to their respective venues.
The problem is that we’ve seen so many Thanksgiving “rivalries” sprout up in recent years that it’s become hard to attach any sort of nostalgia to them. The Shea-Tolman extravaganza is a fairly new phenomenon that dates back to the turn of the century. St. Raphael is now on its third holiday opponent since 2005. Central Falls vs. Lincoln will meet for the second straight season on Thanksgiving Eve, which brings us to our next point.
There are five games slated to take place the night before Thanksgiving. Such a number represents the belief that coaches around the state are subscribing to the idea of grabbing an extra day of rest in lieu of the semifinal round. The more you think about it, the more it makes perfect sense to get the game over with on Wednesday and use Thursday as a day to recover before returning to work Friday.
By no means are we looking to completely abolish the idea of high school teams from tussling on Thanksgiving. Why not hold the semis the week before Thanksgiving – known as the quiet period – with the Super Bowls taking place the following weekend? It would eliminate the grueling stretch of teams potentially playing three games over a 10-day stretch and allow those student-athletes who play a winter sport to begin practicing with their team much sooner rather than the days following the first weekend in December, known as Super Bowl-crowning weekend.
“I think football should be over by the final weekend in November,” said that same coach. “If a kid is a multi-sport athlete, it would be nice for them to have a little break between seasons.”
In order to create some “Thanksgiving Madness,” the coach suggests that the Injury Fund games, which serve as the season’s official kickoff, become a four-quarter affair instead of two. That in turn would leave teams with just one in-season non-league game.
“A lot of times the only item on the table for the Thanksgiving game is playing for pride,” the coach points out. “You can do that with an Injury Fund game at the beginning of the season when both teams are undefeated, which in turn would create some hype.”
It’s simply something to think about the closer we get to Thanksgiving.
***
The interim label no longer applies to Fred Saunders. He has been officially named St. Raphael's athletic director, a position he will hold in addition to coaching girls' basketball at the school.
***
At Monday’s monthly meeting, the Interscholastic League Principals’ Committee on Athletics sent out a loud message in that a stiff penalty awaits coaches who criticize game officials in a public forum. (The board clarified that a public forum is any time a coach or player speaks to a media member.)
This policy, which is new this season, came to light after La Salle boys’ soccer coach Mario Pereira took exception to the officials that oversaw the Oct. 22 game against Shea, which ended in a 2-2 draw. Pereira’s comment that “the officials did not call the game properly” appeared in the Oct. 24 edition of this very newspaper.
Taking a firm stand, the committee voted to impose a $100 fine on La Salle Academy and hand Pereira a one-game disqualification that he will serve next season.
“Coaches have a right to say what they what but there will be consequences,” cited RIIL executive director Tom Mezzanotte.
Should Pereira get called on the carpet again for his actions, he and his school would receive a two-game suspension and $150 fine. The penalty for the third offense is a minimum five-game disqualification and $250 fine.
***
In other matters, the PCOA decreed that in order for athletes to remain eligible, their class load must include “at least four subjects with each involving at least four periods of work or an aggregate of 15 periods of work per week.” A student under RIIL rules, “must have a passing grade of at least 60 percent” based on the length of the marking period “which shall not exceed 12 weeks.”
Also, schools are encouraged to formulate a higher set of academic guidelines, which will be supported by the Interscholastic League.
-- The committee unanimously voted to reject the proposal of 15-minute periods in girls’ hockey, citing budget concerns.
-- The waiver request that Mount St. Charles put in for Nicholas Bennett to have him avoid sitting out a portion of the season after the hockey player transferred from a prep school in Pomfret, Ct. was denied. Bennett suited up for the Mounties in 2009-10.

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