CA bill levels the field in state football finals

(John Johnson)

State legislation from Sen. Melissa Hurtado introduces neutral playing fields for state title games in high school football, passes first step through state Assembly committee

SACRAMENTO – A new piece of legislation is calling for all high school state final football games in California to be played at neutral sites, and it’s already passed an initial committee vote in Sacramento.

Senate Bill (SB) 486, known as the Equity for Rural Schools Act, was approved on a 5-0 approval (with two non-votes) on June 13 in the California Assembly Committee on Arts, Entertainment, Sports and Tourism. It now moves to the Assembly Education Committee, with a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, June 28. If approved there, it becomes eligible for full Assembly vote.

“All teams that make it to a state championship game, regardless of their size or division, should be provided an opportunity to play on the same type of field and in the same type of atmosphere as all other teams,” State Sen. Melissa Hurtado told the committee.

The bill was drafted by Sen. Hurtado (D-Bakersfield) and requires the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) – the governing body for high school sports in the state – to hold all football state championship games for all its divisions at neutral locations that are comparable to the location of all other state championships. The bill’s purpose is for “ensuring equity, dignity, respect and player safety for every student athlete privileged to play in a championship game.”

The bill initially was introduced in February of this year by Hurtado, a Sanger native representing the state senate district that includes Tulare County cities Visalia, Exeter and Tulare. SB 486 essentially affects 30 schools that play in 15 different state regional (Northern and Southern California) championship games in five divisions.

Hurtado addressed the committee about the bill, and also making statements about their experiences were student-athletes Mariyon Sloan and Exekiel Osborne. Hurtado told the committee that five of the 15 regional title games are played at neutral sites, usually college stadiums, and typically are reserved for the five highest divisions.

The remaining games are played at home field sites of the highest remaining seed. That team is responsible for providing the field and other facilities for the game, as well as organizing the event.

Hurtado said in the bill that the 2022 championship venue selections showed that the CIF treated rural and smaller divisions differently and have been historically inequitable. By not having the opportunity of playing in a college stadium, the players at smaller schools play on their home field or “similarly situated” fields and face a greater safety and injury risk.

“California continues to grapple with disparities in the quality and accessibility between high-income and low-income schools, but particularly when it comes to sports fields and educational facilities under the current rules of the CIF,” Hurtado said.

The bill’s goal is that by requiring state football championship games to be held at neutral locations, all teams will get a fair and equal playing experience. This would also ensure that the games are decided based on the skill and performance of the teams, rather than the location of the game.

The bill also stated that holding all championship games at a neutral location, such as a college stadium, would allow for larger crowds for both teams and can have positive implications for the safety of high school football players. A college level stadium, typically would have better medical facilities on site, and have advanced turf field systems that can reduce the risk of injuries.

In the CIF Central Section, postseason football games are all held at the higher seed team’s home stadium, including section finals. The same holds true for Northern California and the majority of Southern California regional playoff matchups.

Three other major team sports – basketball, wrestling and track and field – hold state championship finals and meets at neutral locations. In the Central Section, finals for baseball and softball also are held in neutral ballparks.

“Actions speak louder than words, and as I commented in my closing remarks to the committee, it seems like there’s issues within that need to be addressed, that haven’t been addressed,” Hurtado said after the bill was approved by the first committee. “And this is the reason why we’re pushing this bill, because we don’t want to be in a situation where we have conversations without a piece of legislation and nothing gets done.

“These are our students. Every high school pays into CIF. Every student pays into CIF. At some point, we need to step in and say this is not right.”

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