When Notre Dame Prep finally decided on Tuesday, January 12, to withdraw from the Catholic High School League based on student-athlete safety considerations, school administration officials were not quite sure what kind of reaction they would get from its community of students, parents and alumni.
After all, deciding to leave an institution that has been a part of the DNA of the school ever since Notre Dame's founding in 1954 was huge. There are deep roots in the CHSL that are solidly connected to many coaches, teachers and, most especially, alumni.
But Fr. Leon Olszamowski, who is Notre Dame’s president and a Harper Woods Notre Dame High School alum, said the decision to leave the league had to be done, without question.
In the school’s original news release on this issue, Olszamowski said it’s not about wins and losses; it’s about keeping faith with a commitment to students and parents on athlete safety.
Exacerbating a real safety problem
“We have to remember that these young athletes are still children, still growing and still developing both physically and mentally,” he said. “Our philosophical and practical approaches to football mismatches — and the possibility of head injuries in particular — has motivated our internal activities and public face on this issue. We simply have not agreed with the Catholic League’s current approach with regard to football crossovers, which we feel simply exacerbates a real safety problem.”
Olszamowski told the Notre Dame community on Jan. 13 that at the day-earlier meeting of Executive Athletic Board members of Detroit’s Catholic High School League, the board voted to deny Notre Dame Prep’s appeal to allow it to withdraw from the Catholic League “in football only” for one year while league alignments and football matches—and potential mismatches—are reviewed by a special committee.
The appeal was seen as one more attempt to find a compromise to the complete withdrawal of all Notre Dame sports teams from the league.
The school was appealing an earlier ruling by the league to compel Notre Dame, a member of the league’s AA Division, to play at least one football game per season against a member of CHSL’s Central Division, which is comprised of schools with much larger male student populations, or leave the league entirely.
The net result of the decision on Jan. 12 by the league’s executive board to deny the appeal means that Notre Dame must effectively withdraw from all CHSL athletic participation beginning with the fall 2016 seasons. For the duration of at least one year, NDP, which has both male and female student-athletes, will operate as an independent school with respect to athletic participation and still be eligible for all Michigan High School Athletic Association activities and contests.
Again, it was Notre Dame’s contention that the mismatches resulting from crossover football games in terms of player and roster sizes would be potentially dangerous to the well-being of Notre Dame student-athletes.
But in the end the CHSL did not agree, and the school withdrew from participation in all league athletic activity for the 2016-17 seasons (fall, winter and spring).
The Notre Dame community reacts
A couple of letters from Olszamowski announcing and updating on the school’s decision and the reasons behind it were sent recently to every member of the Notre Dame community, including Notre Dame alumni going back to Harper Woods Notre Dame's first graduating class. Many have responded directly to Notre Dame, with most strongly supporting the school. . .
One alum, from Harper Woods Notre Dame High School’s Class of 1965, wrote back: “I fully support your decision to not participate in the Catholic Football League until the necessary changes are made to protect the safety of Notre Dame Prep players and other schools with similar concerns. Keep up the excellent work and thanks for the updates.”
From Harper Woods Notre Dame High School’s Class of 1967: "Wow… Good for making the hard decision!"
Another from the Class of 1967:"My family is praying for the school and its program and firmly believe in its safety procedures that have come front and center on this issue. I know how much Notre Dame has improved in its safety procedures since I went to school in the 60s there. You have our complete support."
From Harper Woods Notre Dame High School’s Class of 1970: “In light of all the negative feedback you are likely to receive from all quarters, I wanted to quickly state my whole-hearted approval of your decision regarding the football program, and by extension, the entire athletic program. The dangers of football are becoming increasingly obvious and increasingly well-known. When it is adults playing professionally against peers of approximately the same size and skill level, it's dangerous enough; but it is a decision made by adults.
“While it is fashionable and constructive to refer to our high school students as young men and young women, they are not yet fully developed adults. To have a team of players in any sport play against another team that is substantially larger and faster could easily result in some embarrassment for the smaller team, but in virtually no sport other than football is it also likely to result in serious physical injury.
“Almost four years ago, former NFL star quarterback Kurt Warner said that he would prefer that his sons not play football. In spite of his respected status in the football community, he took a lot of heat for that statement. We have made some progress since then in recognizing and acknowledging the dangers of football. Unfortunately, however, I find myself unsurprised at the actions of the Catholic League in this case, even though it shows a clear disregard for student safety.
“You have taken a brave and important stance, and I applaud you for it. It's at times like this that I'm reminded of why I'm proud to be a graduate of NDHS.”
Another alumnus from the NDHS Class of 1970: “Very proud of our administration, our president, our coaching staffs, and our school for taking a stance like this. While it seems to be winning the battle and losing the war, it is a shame it came down to this. Football is violent enough without having these unbalanced mismatches that can lead to serious problems. Much will be made of ND being the only one to not go along with the program. Standing up to the league is a big deal that I’m sure will lead to other ramifications. Lets hope the kids don't suffer for it. I commend Father Leon for not only taking this stand to protect our athletes but for letting his alumni know about it as well. I read it in the newspaper the day before but his letter is appreciated.
“I have never been able to get to the new campus. I am contemplating retiring soon and will make a point of it to visit in the near future.”
From an ND Prep alum, Class of 1999: ”Stand up for what you believe in, even if you are standing alone. Way to model the mission!”
A member of Notre Dame High School’s Class of 1974 also wrote to the school and said, “I agree with NDP all the way!”
A current parent writes, “I commend Notre Dame Prep on a well-reasoned decision and a well-written explanation. You have my support.”
Many more wrote back to the school applauding the decision, including a current teacher at Notre Dame Prep, who said, “I want to thank the adults like Coach Fox and Coach Wroubel who are setting aside the nostalgia for their own glory days and are instead making the best decisions they can based on the information and resources they have available to them.”
Still another alum from Notre Dame High School said, “Thank you for sending out the recent letter concerning the Catholic League. I wholeheartedly support your decision. I played sports during my time at Notre Dame and believe sports are an important part of growing up, but safety must be taken into account. As I learned at Notre Dame and through life experience, let the facts help make your decisions and not political pressure from outside.”
A Judicial Vicar from a diocese in northern Michigan and former NDHS teacher also reacted to the decision to leave the league: “I am proud of Fr. Leon's stance and motivation of ‘the good of the student athlete’ in his arguments. I was a member of the Society of Mary and taught at Notre Dame H.S. from 1967-1970. During that time I coached soccer as a club sport and helped bring it letter status. Our games were among the very schools mentioned as appropriate matches: Cranbrook, Country Day, University Liggett, etc. Sport contributed to the holistic development of our student-athletes and did not use them as pawns in a game of creating athletic powerhouses. Thank YOU, Fr. Leon, for your stance and courage. Wishing the entire staff God's blessings in all your endeavors.”
Answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) regarding the decision to withdraw from the Catholic League and become an independent school:
When does this Catholic League withdrawal take effect?
At the beginning of the fall 2016 seasons/school year (August 2016).
What does it mean to be an “independent school?"
Notre Dame Prep remains in good standing under the governance of the MHSAA and will receive the same benefits of membership as any other private or public school in the state. NDP will have the ability to schedule opponents as it sees fit to provide the best competitive environment possible for our student-athletes. We will be eligible for all county, district, regional and state meets. Additionally, we are able to compete in any invitational not hosted at a league member school.
Will the withdrawal from the league affect any post season awards for this year?
No. Our student-athletes will still be eligible for all post-season athletic and academic awards, competitions and honors.
How about next year?
Our student-athletes will be eligible for all individual and team awards at the district, regional and state level, as well as individual coaches association awards. The school will not be eligible for league awards beginning with the fall 2016 seasons unless we chose to join another conference.
Does it apply to just football, or all Notre Dame teams?
All teams at the high school level. It does not affect the middle or lower division teams, which will continue to play in the CYO.
Does it also apply to CYO teams at the middle division?
How long will Notre Dame Prep be out of the league?
NDP will remain independent until such time as the Catholic League addresses the safety issues and concerns raised by Notre Dame. We could, however, join another league beginning with the fall 2016 seasons, but at this time, no decisions have been made in this regard.
Will Notre Dame Prep be dropping any sports as a result of this?
No. NDP will continue to offer every single sport currently offered.
With the change, should we anticipate the same, less, or more games/competitions/matches per season?
The same. We anticipate no less competitions due to the change.
Will sports schedules be able to make up for the loss of CHSL teams?
Yes. NDP is a highly respected and valued athletic school. We do not anticipate any challenges in scheduling competitive matches for our student-athletes.
Will Notre Dame Prep join another league?
Possibly. As an independent school, we can choose to participate or not participate in any league that is mutually beneficial for the school and the league. The school would only pursue entry into leagues that fit the school athletic philosophy of fair play, competitive matches and geographic congruency. The school intends to explore all options.
Will my (or my son or daughter’s) Catholic League awards still be valid?
All existing awards through the end of the 2016 spring season will be legitimate and valid. Once you have earned an award, no one can take it away.
What about prior individual or team CHSL records and championships? Still valid?
Yes. See above.
What is the real reason for the withdrawal from the league?
It is due to the Catholic League's insistence that smaller AA division member schools like NDP play cross-over football games against larger Central Division opponents, which the school deems as a major safety issue. It should be noted that several other states have passed legislation that prohibits leagues and schools from scheduling these types of mismatches in “collision” sports, such as football, due to the increased risk of injury.
Will this action affect participation in state (MHSAA) playoffs?
No. We remain in full compliance and continue in good standing with the MHSAA and will continue to compete in all district, regional and state competitions that our athletes and teams qualify for.
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." The Marist Fathers and Brothers sponsor NDPMA's Catholic identity and manages its educational program. Notre Dame is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org.