Sidelines: Silence on the East Hampton Gridiron

Pierson's Bradley Toole, right, competing as a member of the Southampton football team against East Hampton last year. Brett Mauser photo

By Gavin Menu

Surprise, disappointment and even shock followed the news last week that East Hampton High School was cancelling its varsity and junior varsity football seasons. While parents and alumni of the program expressed disappointment and even outrage with coaches and administrators, the facts painted a different story: a total of 25 kids signed up to play junior varsity and varsity football, and, according to coaches, some of the pre-season practices were attended by a total of 14 players.

These numbers are not sustainable for one football team, much less two. And knowing the programs East Hampton was set to go up against this year, putting inexperienced freshmen and sophomores on the field would not have been a good idea. I played football in East Hampton in the early 1990s and am raising children, including a bulky little boy, in the same town. We were certainly not world beaters in my day, but we always had plenty of numbers to field varsity and JV teams, and that was from a high school population of roughly 400 kids. Today’s school population hovers closer to 1,000.

A lot of people are asking what has changed. Are reports from professional football about concussions and brain damage convincing parents to not allow their children to play? Did the move back to the “black and blue” ranks of Division III, which East Hampton officials have fought against, caused potential players to stay away? Are East Hampton children running for the beaches rather than the weight room? Are changing demographics, including the region’s booming Latino population, to blame? Soccer is traditionally the dominant sport among Latinos, after all, and more than 80 kids tried out for the East Hampton soccer team, although I’m not sure how that affects the remaining school population of 1,000.

It’s most likely a combination of these things that ultimately led to the demise of Bonac football. The sport may or may not be resurrected in the years to come, though, after digesting the news myself over the last week, I am not hopeful. Football, is a tough, physical game, and the potential for head injuries is a serious problem. Parents are nervous about their kids playing the game at all, much less sending their rag-tag crew of 14 up against Islip, Kings Park or Hauppauge, where 50 or 60 kids suit up after spending their entire summers in the weight room.

In terms of these kids wanting to spend their summers on the beach, who can blame them? East Hampton has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It also has one of the top lifeguard programs in the country, and one of the best club swim teams in New York State. There is a sense of community constantly being built around these programs, and also high standards for which participants must reach.

Have the demographics of East Hampton changed over the years? It would be impossible to argue against this, as many middle class, blue-collar families — those whose fathers and grandfathers played football for the Bonackers — have left town because of the pressure of an impossibly high cost of living, or because they “cashed out” for a more affordable lifestyle elsewhere. They have been replaced by lots of second homeowners, some of whose children do not attend school here, and by a Latino population whose children, for the most part, don’t play football. East Hampton’s soccer team is a perennial championship contender, and while the school’s tennis, volleyball and golf teams have enjoyed some recent success, most other programs have struggled, with the lacrosse program also having to fold last year.

According to longtime East Hampton Star sports reporter Jack Graves, this will be the second year since 1923 that East Hampton will not field a football team, the other coming in 2014. The disappointment is understandable, but the surprise and shock seem a bit contrived. After all, the writing has been the wall for years now, even if the news remains difficult to accept.