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Help from Bobcats, Jordan a welcome boost for schools

At Ridge Road Middle School, athletic director Tony Huggins heard a familiar story Monday.

A female student said she wasn’t going to be able to play basketball this year because her mother had recently lost her job and couldn’t afford the new $50 participation fee required for all middle school athletes.

In a two-year-old school with approximately 1,200 students, Huggins estimated 20 to 25 percent of the students face a similar challenge.

That’s why the Charlotte Bobcats’ and owner Michael Jordan’s announcement that the franchise is donating $250,000 to help pay the participation fees for students who can’t afford them was a ray of good news in time of severe budget cuts.

“Michael Jordan is building up what we’ve been preaching, that we’re going to find a way to make sure no kid is left out that wants to play sports,” Huggins said.

When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system cut the entire $1.25 million middle school athletic budget during the summer, participation fees ($50 for middle school, $100 for high school) and a $1 ticket surcharge were created to keep sports alive for sixth through eighth graders.

The most optimistic projections suggest the participation fees might cover $650,000 to $700,000 of the budget, CMS athletic director Vicki Hamilton said. The rest will have to come from other sources, primarily donors such as the Bobcats and other organizations.

With the Bobcats’ announcement, Hamilton said the system has raised approximately $315,000 from donations so far. Student fees won’t kick in until later because they’re still being collected through Sept. 15 in high schools and through the end of September in middle schools.

The Bobcats’ announcement, which included a pep rally in the gym at Eastway Middle School, helps cover the budget shortfall and raised awareness in the community. Hamilton said she received three calls from area businesses Monday asking how their companies could help.

“Our basketball team today planted roots deeply in our community,” Mayor Anthony Foxx said. “Michael Jordan knows from his own experience there are kids who accessed education by the hook of sports. It’s not just the athletic competition that a gift like this allows. It’s also the engagement in the classroom it enables.”

On Monday afternoon, middle school coaches gathered in the same Eastway gym where the pep rally, which included Bobcats All-Star Gerald Wallace, had been held.

The coaches were there for their annual preseason rules seminar but they were told of the Bobcats’ donation if they hadn’t heard.

“It’s something we need,” said Leisa Christian, athletic director at Bradley Middle School. “We’re grateful to them but we need other organizations to jump on board.”

Huggins, who attended Piedmont Middle School, said he’s grown accustomed to students telling him they might not play sports this year because they’re afraid to ask their parents for money. Huggins and his coaches give the students paperwork to take home that will waive the participation fee for those on free or reduced-cost lunch programs.

While students might be exempted from paying the fees, those costs must still be made up somewhere. That’s where donations like the one the Bobcats and The Charlotte Touchdown Club have made are critical. The question is will there be enough to carry middle school sports through the academic year?

“I go to bed thinking about it and I wake up thinking about it,” Hamilton said.

When the budget cuts became reality this year, middle school athletics effectively disappeared until the participation fees were presented as a way to save the sports.

“So many times we want to do what’s easy, not what’s right,” Christian said. “This is the right thing to do. I commend Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats and other organizations for leading the charge.”