ANACONDA – In fending off a proposal to form an unprecedented football co-op with longtime rival Butte Central, the Anaconda School Board stuck a finger in the proverbial dike Wednesday night.
The vote was 5-1 and a welcome reprieve for most of the 70 in attendance at Anaconda High School, many of whom cling to the nostalgic notion of reclaiming a sports tradition that rivals any in all of Montana.
In truth, and as the father of former high school athletes I say this grudgingly, the notion is more fantasy than reality.
And this isn’t just about Anaconda.
Unlikely bedfellow discussions like those between Anaconda and Butte Central, a definite eye-popper that could’ve forged the first co-op between Class A and B schools, are destined to become more common across Montana as participation numbers continue to shrink, especially in football.
As noted by Blake Hempstead -- the sole dissenter in the Anaconda vote and as true navy blue a Copperhead you’ll ever meet – high school football participation is down about 7 percent nationally. With compounding concerns over concussions and fewer insurers of contact sports, along with a growing range of other activities for students in the digital age, there is no reason to expect the trend will reverse itself no matter the impassioned wishes of coffee-shop old-timers.
Some would call it a crisis, but to do so suggests it is Constitutionally mandated that football merit a permanent prominent place in our cultural fabric.
Cultures ebb, flow and evolve. There was life before football and, presumably, there will be life after it.
At Anaconda, the attendance of 45 to 48 prospective players at recent meetings buoyed hopes that finishing the 2018 Class B season with 18 was a one-year aberration.
Trouble is, January is one thing. So, for that matter, is August.
Proof is in the frigid dog days of November.
The concern with such a thin bench, of course, is the increased risk of 105-pound freshmen getting relieved of their teeth and faculties by 210-pound seniors. Safety was the No. 1 worry of co-op proponents, contrary to the assertion Anaconda and Butte Central were conspiring to build a Class A superpower.
The growing numbers issue isn’t about shrinking communities, though population drain, especially in northern and eastern Montana, is acute – hence the need for co-ops, especially at Class C schools.
In fact, I’m convinced enrollments ultimately will rebound across the state, quicker in some areas than others.
In an increasingly smaller and crowded world, folks are craving a slower pace, outdoor activities and the open spaces Montana still has in abundance thanks largely to our isolation and uncrowded public lands.
People are coming and they will keep coming. Dillon, Lewistown and even Anaconda -- take a look at Bozeman, Kalispell and Missoula, because that’s you in 15, 25, 35 years.
In short, we can eat the scenery.
So no, lack of prospects walking our school halls won’t be the challenge, particularly when you have a purple mountains majesty backdrop like Anaconda’s.
It is interest in football in particular and high school sports in general that are destined to further wane.
Declining participation numbers and spectator support tell a stark tale. Scan the marginally filled bleachers, especially in larger towns, and recall the days of recent yore when crosstown basketball games drew up to 9,000.
I can't see those days ever returning even as communities grow.
The irony is that the very technology that makes it possible to reverse these population dips in small towns is also a primary reason kids are straying from traditional activities.
For many, including some in the Wednesday crowd in Anaconda, this evolution is difficult to reconcile.
And I get it.
When the smelter was firing and “The Stack” belching, An-DEE-conda was a proud and gritty community of immigrants teeming with BMOC athletes. Wayne Estes, Ed Kalafat and Milan Lazetich were just a few of the greats who wore Copperhead navy and silver and gave the town an enviable identity.
The community has since struggled to heal the scars of irreconcilable tragedy -- first the bizarre death of the basketball legend Estes in 1965 and then the shuttering of the Washoe Smelter in 1980.
The drop from Class AA to Class A to Class B and now to talk of a co-op in a town where sports were king is yet another blow. So while much of the opposition revolved around practical matters such as costs to bus players to Butte, blending players and cheerleaders, and separation of church and state, among other issues, surely at the root is wounds to an already battered psyche.
Some in the audience linked falling numbers to failed parenting.
That isn’t it.
Nor is it a function of lazy kids. Our children are more diversely talented than ever.
No, it’s a culture that’s evolving fast, an evolution no number of fingers in the dike will halt.
As a former parent of high school athletes, I can -- grudgingly -- accept that.