The story has captivated Baltimore sports fans throughout the year.
The St. Frances Academy football team was awarded the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title -- which in fairness, the Panthers almost certainly would have won anyway -- before the season ever began. The Panthers' conference opponents chose to not play them any longer, so the league gave St. Frances the crown for the year as the team transitions toward playing more of a national schedule and trying to win a national championship.
The situation at St. Frances, which is in East Baltimore, has captured the attention of the entire area, which is particularly interesting considering so few of us have anything at all to do with the school. It's just that there are so many elements to this. Are the other MIAA schools really concerned about "player safety?" Or are they simply tired of getting their butts kicked?
Is the player safety issue truly different now than when St. Frances co-head coach Biff Poggi had similar dominant success a few years ago at Gilman? Opponents didn't refuse to play the Greyhounds then. But is it possible we've just gotten smarter about football safety as a society? If we knew then what we know now, perhaps opponents would've taken the same actions?
School officials for St. Frances, which serves a predominately African-American student population, have said complaints about the football program are tinged with racism.
Just about every argument that has been presented has been at least somewhat believable. It has been difficult to take anyone's "side" in all of this -- unless of course you have a vested interest in one of the concerned parties -- because the truth appears to be some combination of all of the known elements.
It's also fascinating because at the center of it is a man who is one of our city's most compelling sports figures ever.
Poggi was profiled in an ESPN "E:60" episode Aug. 5. The segment seemed to present the coach as a nearly heroic figure, an argument that is similarly made by many who know him and have played for him.
But how exactly should we view Poggi? Poggi is far from the typical high school football coach getting by on a teacher's salary.
He is an enormously successful investment fund manager and has reportedly spent millions of dollars of his own money to build the St. Frances program.
In the process, he's bettered the lives of a number of local kids who might otherwise have been in more dire straits. But his charity has also served the cause of winning football games.
"We're not going to apologize for winning football games and championships," Poggi said during the "E:60" special. Nor should he apologize.
But National Christian Academy coach Andre Kates -- briefly a Baltimore Ravens cornerback in 2013 -- has accused Poggi's staff of trying to "steal" players. He tweeted Aug. 5 that St. Frances had "reached out to four of our players who all have major 1A offers." National Christian Academy is a private school in Ft. Washington, Md., in Prince George's County.
In a follow-up interview with PressBox, Kates said the number of players St. Frances coaches had attempted to poach was actually five. If that's true, should St. Frances apologize for that? Or is that just standard operating procedure in high-level high school football?
Poggi did not respond to interview requests for this column.
According to Kates, attempting to poach players is common for highly competitive national high school football programs. Kates, however, said no other MIAA school had ever attempted to poach a player from his program and that his own program has never attempted to poach a player either.
With St. Frances seemingly attempting to claim a moral high ground in its public fight with other MIAA schools, how do we judge the lengths those connected to the program are willing to go in the name of winning football games?
When it comes to Poggi, I'm personally inclined to not necessarily consider him a sort of saint, but instead to think of him as a football coach who has done some very good things in the pursuit of winning football games. That's admirable in and of itself. And many former players have said he's also been a very positive figure in their lives. Every coach (Kates included) is trying to win football games. Poggi has greater economic means by which to do so, and those means have helped benefit kids in the process.
And in the end, it just might be best that the Panthers are pushing forward and setting their sights on goals bigger than what can be attained in the MIAA.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of U-M Photography
Issue 246: August 2018
Originally published Aug. 15, 2018