I first heard that Thomson High School might be charging an athletic fee this summer, but I did not address it in this space because I assumed that $30 per sport would be insignificant enough not to cause a ruckus, and ruckuses grab attention. A story in this newspaper last week indicates that I was wrong. The story alludes to the fact that parents questioned why they weren’t notified of the fee in a timely manner. Was that the real beef?

It has never ceased to amaze me that many never catch on that athletic programs in public schools and colleges are not government funded. Local school boards can provide facilities and pay salaries to teacher-coaches, but no taxpayer funds can be used for equipment, liability insurance, game operations or anything else that goes with an athletic program. Until an Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) was established by law in 1997, most facilities were bare-boned, and some were dangerous.

So, if it is illegal for the taxpayers to bankroll athletics and gate receipts become insufficient, who pays the freight? Why not the users? It seems only reasonable to me that those who use a service, or participate in an activity, should be expected to pay for it. The fact that playing sports in the McDuffie County Schools has been free for the past million years doesn’t invalidate that concept. You’ve just been spared, until now.

School systems across Georgia and in other states have been charging athletic participation fees for years, often into the hundreds of dollars. I was aware of that but perhaps many of you were not. If you suddenly must pay the $30 that revelation won’t ease your dismay. Taking for granted that somebody else will pay for your child to play sports at Thomson High, because they always have, has become a natural inclination I suppose.

The late David Williams, Athletic Director at Vanderbilt University for 18 years, had a forthright take on participation in athletics in a school, college or university. Williams was a trailblazer, the first African-American vice-chancellor at Vanderbilt, and somewhat old-school. I recall him saying in a live television interview that “participation in athletics is a privilege, not a God-given right.” That was quite the profound statement that I agree with.   

For the privilege of cable TV coming into my home and possessing a cell phone, I am required to pay for them. If those “necessities” aren’t a right, then Williams had to be spot on about athletics. Perhaps we have created an enigma because spectators also use sports as entertainment with an admission charge and the players are unpaid actors. That does not prevent the privilege of participation from becoming more costly. The first scuttlebutt I heard about Thomson’s athletic fee was that football would carry an $80.00 charge while the other sports would be $30.00. If that was indeed the original thinking by the school administration, then football parents caught a break. While it produces greater revenue than any other sport, football is more expensive than the others by a long shot. The exclusive privilege of playing high school football is a bargain at any price in my opinion, unless you must give up a cell phone or cable TV in order to afford it.

Gene Walker is a retired educator who lives in Thomson. His column, “Sports Talk,” appears in the  weekly editions of The McDuffie Progress. He can be reached by e-mail at walkerdogs12874@yahoo.com.

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