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Will the games go on?

James Joy has firsthand experience of the chaos a teachers strike can wreak on a school district's sports landscape.

He was a senior at South Eugene High in the spring of 1987 when the Eugene teachers walked out for 22 days. It was the longest of the 24 school-district strikes Oregon has had since 1973.

In that particular case, coaches' contracts were tied to the teachers union, said Joy, now the athletic director at St. Mary's High.

St. Mary's is a private school, leaving Joy on the sidelines as the Medford Education Association and the Medford School District negotiate a new contract. The MEA announced Saturday night that a strike will begin Feb. 6. It authorized the move earlier in the week and was required to give 10-days notice before walking out.

Administration officials have indicated the Medford School District will attempt to operate as normally as possible if there's a strike. Presumably, that would include extra-curricular activities, including sports.

Most of the coaches at North and South Medford high schools are not in the teachers union, so boys and girls basketball, wrestling and swimming could go on with minimal interruption.

No contingency plans have been announced by the district.

Prior to Saturday's announcement, North Medford athletic director Tim Sam said, "If and when they set a strike date, we still have time to figure things out."

The specter of a strike has led to wide-ranging conjecture about how athletics would be affected.

Sam outlined three scenarios — without weighting them — in such an event:

  • Games go on as scheduled with full coaching staffs.
  • Games are canceled, resulting in forfeits, for as long as the strike lasts.
  • Games go on with a mix of coaches, depending on whether any of the handful of coaches in the union cross the picket line, or whether some of the contracted, or off-campus, coaches choose to stand with the teachers.

"The district is going to say you can have games or you can't," said South Medford athletic director Dennis Murphy, who is also the boys basketball coach and falls under the MEA bargaining unit. He made his comments before the strike announcement.

If the district said "go for it," he added, individuals on both sides will have to make personal decisions.

"It all comes into question," said Murphy. "At this point, it's still a mess."

Murphy, wrestling head coach Greg Bryant and one of his assistants, and swimming head coach Robyn Schiffer are part of the union.

At North Medford, girls head basketball coach Tim Karrick and one of his assistants are teachers.

It's one of the few cases, said Sam, when it might be beneficial to have non-staffers as coaches.

If there aren't enough coaches in the programs to keep them operational, schools can bring in substitutes as long as they are certified by the Oregon School Activities Association, said Murphy.

The worst scenario, and the one that appears least likely, is that schools are closed and games forfeited.

That's what Joy, a tennis player at South Eugene, went through with classmates and teammates.

Coaches couldn't coach, so games were lost. The hardest hit were the baseball and softball teams, he said, which forfeited about a half-dozen games each.

"It was a frustrating deal, especially for them," he said, "because it was out of their hands and there was nothing they could do about it. They had to take the forfeits. As the days went by, they just watched as they dropped in the standings."

Athletes in individual sports such as track, golf and tennis weren't as affected. They qualified for state through district tournaments that occurred after the strike.

School was closed for a week as the transition from regular faculty to substitutes was made, said Joy, and athletes couldn't use the facilities. The tennis players worked out together, he said, and the golfers actually improved, he said, because they could practice or play 18 holes every day.

Back then, there weren't state power rankings that determine positioning in the postseason. Forfeits nowadays would have a ripple affect throughout the state.

The South Medford girls basketball team, for instance, is ranked No. 1 in Class 6A. A series of forfeits would lower its ranking, and that wouldn't bode well for a playoff opponent that deserved better than a state powerhouse in an early round.

In 2007, the Nyssa girls basketball team forfeited its first 18 games for use of an ineligible player, yet it got into its league playoffs, ran the table and won the Class 3A state championship with a final record of 10-19.

South Medford girls basketball coach Tom Cole, whose team has played in the last two state championship games, admitted he hasn't considered the ramifications of a strike on his team. He's confident games will go on.

However, if forfeits do come into play, he said, "You no longer have a system based on adequate rankings because of what this would do to it."

The OSAA has been through strikes, said Executive Director Tom Welter. The association's handbook outlines its position, one of which is that there are no provisions for strike-canceled games to be made up.

The subject of strikes and forfeits might come into play elsewhere. Portland Public Schools is in negotiations with its teachers union. The two sides are at an impasse and the teachers have been polled regarding their interest in walking.

The Portland teachers union also represents coaches in the district and, according to a story in the Oregonian, district officials are looking at a variety of scenarios to address the impact on sports if coaches side with teachers and strike.

Anytime there's a strike, it's inevitable that school days will be lost as faculty members check out and substitute teachers are trained, according to Lisa Freiley in the Oregonian story. She handles legal, labor and insurance issues for the Oregon School Boards Association.

In the week and half before the strike date, the South Medford basketball teams will play three of their remaining eight league games, and North Medford will play two of their seven.

The Southern Oregon Hybrid's top three teams automatically qualify for the 32-team postseason bracket.

The fourth- and fifth-place teams face play-in games, with the opponent and site to be determined by OSAA power rankings. The rankings freeze Feb. 26.

The South Medford girls are 4-0 and in first place in the SOH, and North Medford is in fourth place at 1-4.

In the boys standings, North Medford is first at 4-1, followed by second-place South Medford at 3-1.

Because all Class 6A teams qualify for the postseason, the only way the South Medford girls wouldn't get a shot at their second state title in three years is if a strike shut down all activities and lasted until the play-in games, which are to be completed March 1.

Wrestling and swimming district tournaments are Feb. 14-15.

Many questions remain and answers should be coming soon.

"Nobody wants it to get to this point," said Sam. "We all care about kids. My hope is we figure it out before it really starts impacting kids."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

South Medford boys basketball coach Dennis Murphy also serves as the school's athletic director.