High School headlines

One of the most historically proud and distinguished prep sports leagues in America, the Oakland Athletic League, is in trouble. If it doesn't get a smart, committed savior right now, the OAL could be history by the time school resumes in the fall.

Unfortunately, that would-be savior would require strong school district support that doesn't currently appear to exist. Instead, the school board and state administrator overseeing a league that produced Bill Russell and Frank Robinson and more recently Leon Powe and Marshawn Lynch has been looking into dissolving the six-school CIF section — formed in 1940 — and forcing its only league, the OAL, into the North Coast Section.

The move would open the door for splintering the OAL and driving some of its teams to other leagues.

Talks are starting to get serious and a decision could be forthcoming early in the summer. A bad one is feared by many in the know. While merging with a larger, better-funded section might seem to have its benefits and could strip down some of the barriers of inner-city isolation, longtime OAL voices contend it's a lot more complicated than that and warn that dissolving the section could serve to dissolve the long, storied tradition of the OAL.

"I think the negatives (of joining the NCS) far outweigh the positives," said Jerry Luzar, who doubled as Oakland Section commissioner and OAL director for 12 years before stepping down in 2007. "There are a lot of reasons for Oakland to maintain its status as a section."

In a nutshell, Luzar believes it's going to cost the Oakland school district more money to have less say in its future athletic endeavors if it joins the NCS. The OAL would lose its precious autonomy, he said, and in the NCS' more disciplined alignments by enrollment, perhaps members of the league itself in time.

The Oakland Section is the smallest of 10 high school sections in California and is composed of six schools — McClymonds, Skyline, Oakland, Castlemont, Oakland Tech and Fremont highs. Even though enrollments vary greatly, the OAL has remained unchanged for 50 years since Skyline became the last public high school constructed in the city in 1958. It has a magnificent legacy perpetuated this winter when its smallest school, Mack, won the state Division I boys basketball title.

But the Oakland school district, cash-strapped and looking to cut costs, is hedging about paying a full-time section commissioner and treading dangerously toward dissolution. Without a commissioner, the section — and the league — is basically a headless entity ripe for takeover and dissection.

"It's how they value athletics in the Oakland Unified School District,'' Lazar said. "The district knew in April of 2007 that I was going to retire in August of 2007. I stayed all summer long with the intent of having the district hire someone and allowing me to provide some mentorship. Why haven't they been able to fill the position? I don't think they're really looking very hard. They need to get their act together."

Longtime Skyline High football coach John Beam, now athletic director and football coach at Laney College, agrees with Lazar. He's even more blunt.

"The only reason the OAL is even looking at this is because they can't pony up to pay for a commissioner, which is just ludicrous,'' Beam said. "They don't care. They're in debt, so they're bean-counters right now."

Both Lazar and Beam contend that joining the NCS for financial considerations is irrational. Even if the section were dissolved, the league would still have to pay a league director. Travel costs likely would escalate. The individual schools would have to pay thousands of dollars in membership dues to the NCS, dues that do not exist in the Oakland section. The OAL, primarily a varsity-only league, might be mandated by the NCS to add JV and freshman teams. The league's long-held insistence that its members compete at the Division I level might also be altered. So would the policy that all league revenues be shared equally.

Then there are the special considerations of inner-city schools that are best governed and addressed by those directly confronted with the issues.

"The autonomy factor is important in that Oakland people determine who's eligible in Oakland," Lazar said. "When it comes to reviewing hardship cases, for instance, there's a lot of empathy from people in Oakland for the conditions that our students live under and go to school under. Some of those kinds of conditions, in my judgment, are not always well recognized by others outside of Oakland."

Added Beam, who claimed he might have taken the commissioner's job if he could have been guaranteed decision-making power, "We're one of 10 votes in the state, but we're also a big voice for inner-city, urban or minority kids, whatever you want to call it. Who else speaks for them?"

No one in a position of authority right now, apparently. The price could be the death of a great high school league. Sad and unnecessary.

Contact Carl Steward at csteward@bayareanewsgroup.com.