Three days before the 2017 Whitney Young High School homecoming game, students, faculty, parents, and most importantly in this case the football team’s players learned that their season had been cancelled. This year, instead of football, the Dolphin faithful celebrated their homecoming week with a soccer game versus Curie Metropolitan High School.
Whitney Young Principal Dr. Joyce Kenner attributed the first ever cancellation of the football team’s homecoming game and season in her more than 20 years as principal to a combination of injuries, lack of interest, and academic ineligibility. She said the team is obligated to dress 22 players and only had 19 players available including freshmen and sophomores. She guaranteed that next year the football team will return with a full season.
“Unfortunately, this is a collection of issues that we had to deal with,” said Kenner. “We don’t want to embarrass the football players, we want to recognize them for their hard work through last summer and up to this point.”
True to Kenner’s word, all of the members of the WYHS football team were honored at midcourt of the school’s basketball court during a pep rally held on Thursday, Sept. 28, where they received a standing ovation from their peers, faculty, administrators, and parents.
Kenner announced too that due to the recognition of Yom Kippur on Friday, Sept. 29, the homecoming dance was moved to Saturday, Oct. 21 and will be accompanied with an additional week of events leading up to it beginning on Monday, Oct. 16.
Players and their parents openly expressed their displeasure over the cancellations. Among the frustrated players was WYHS senior running back/linebacker Le’Mark Russell. Russell said he woke up at 4 a.m. multiple days throughout the summer to prepare for football practices and conditioning over the summer. His mother, LaDonna Powell, was by his side throughout his football journey this season.
“I was very disappointed when [Dr. Kenner] cut the program,” said Russell. “Since January I’ve been all in on football, I’ve done something related to football every single day, and after I put all that work in to not play my homecoming game was a waste.”
Powell called the abrupt ending to the season “disheartening.” She said she spoke to other players and their mothers and found a similar response.
“They practice and they do what they can do and homecoming is their biggest thing,” said Powell. “When you think of a homecoming game, you think of the football players and the football team so for that to be taken away from them I think it’s been stripped.”
Melanie Young whose son Maxwell Young, a senior offensive and defensive lineman at WYHS,
said the cancellation of the homecoming game and season was “absolutely devastating.”
“The boys are sad, there’s been a lot of sad faces, some of the upcoming students have talked about transferring if they’re not going to continue with the football program,” said Young.
Young said she thinks it’s time for a change in leadership of the football team, which in turn will change the culture of the program.
“The kids don’t want to try out and see what it’s like because they hear what [Whitney Young HS head coach Tim Franken] is like,” said Young. “The school does not like to lose. They were up against hard teams with inexperienced players and these boys deserved the spotlight in there today, and this was their day and their prep rally, and they took that from them.”
Powell and Russell told the Defender there was a tentative agreement between the football team and its players that if a few of the players deemed academically ineligible were able to lift their grades by Tuesday, Sept. 26, Kenner would allow the team to continue its season – an agreement she confirmed took place.
“[Kenner] cut the program on Monday but the players said they had until Tuesday to bring it up,” said Russell. “Maybe there’s a lack of communication between us and the principal, I don’t know, but I know with more time those ineligibilities would’ve been corrected and we would’ve had enough players to play.”
“If the season had to be cut, I rather it be cut after the homecoming game,” said Russell.
Kenner justified her actions by stating that she wanted to make sure WYHS placed a competitive and safe team out on the field of play. She said the majority of the ineligible players would’ve been freshmen and sophomores.
“The students did have an opportunity to improve their grades over the next couple of days, however, even if we had those students to become eligible, we were still one student low or at the number required, but that still did not mean we were putting a quality program on the field to compete against a varsity level program from another school,” said Kenner.
Kenner responded, too, to the players’ desire to play despite not having an ideal number of participants.
“My responsibility as the principal of this institution is to make sure that every student in this building participating in any activity is safe, and those conditions were not safe for some of the students on the field,” said Kenner. “I am not ever going to put students in harm’s way. I respect the students wanting to play and having the commitment and the determination, but as the adult here, I thought it was the best thing to do.”
The stunning cancellation still transpired despite the attempts of two of WYHS’ young women volunteering to play. Kenner said she asked one of the young women why she wanted to play and the response given was the young woman wanted to “help the football team.”
“Two young ladies asked if they could play and, of course, legally they have a right to play but the problem with that was you need 12 days of practice before you can get on the field,” said Kenner, who explained the young ladies wouldn’t have had enough practice time to be eligible to play.
Recruiting football players to play at Whitney Young has been an ongoing issue. Franken said of the five seniors on the team only two have been with the program all four years – three joined the team last year as juniors. He said attracting the right players who understand the grind involved with playing football is important. He said in years past they’ve had young ladies play on the team, too.
“We work hard on recruiting inside the building, first of all,” said Franken. “Football is a bit of a different sport. It’s not a participatory sport where you take kids out of the hall and put them on the field; we’ve tried that, and several of the kids who came didn’t make it through one practice.”
Franken said he’s confident that after a meeting with Kenner the two will work out a game plan to reach more students.