by Andrew Garda

Since 2011, the Montclair High School Gridiron Club has sold “Blackout” T-shirts as a fundraiser in support of the Mountie football program.  Donning the shirt on game day allowed free entry to Mountie home games, among other perks.

As of this year, that is no longer the case, according to Gridiron President Susan Moore.
On Aug. 24, Moore was informed by Montclair High School athletic director Patrick Scarpello that the free entry would not be allowed this year.
It came as somewhat of a shock to the Gridiron Club board, which had sent in its request allowing for free entry for shirt wearers through the same channels it had every year since the fundraiser began.

“We just assumed it was the same as all the other years,” Moore said.

While previous administrations had approved the practice of allowing those wearing the shirts to gain entry free, new Superintendent Kendra Johnson was looking at it more closely, however.

The sticking point is the loss of revenue from ticket sales that benefits all athletics.

“The previous practice of allowing free admission into home football games in fact took funds away from the entire high school athletic program,” Johnson wrote in an email. “All proceeds from the ticket sales to all games go into the general student activities account for athletics, not just to the particular sport associated with the day's ticket sales.”

In emails to the Gridiron Club, Johnson pointed to the practice also being in potential conflict with Title IX laws.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law that states, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

In the case of free tickets, Johnson argues it takes money away from the general fund, which hurts other sports and that it harms girls’ sports in particular.

“Our male sports, generally speaking only, tend to have higher ticket sales with football being probably at the highest end,” Johnson explained in the email. “Hence, we were, as unintentionally as it may be, reducing the total amount of funds to support our entire athletic program. Further, we were, again unintentionally, giving favor to one sport when all other athletic booster clubs deserve equal access to those proceeds.”

This is not an issue that is unique to Montclair. Last month, KQED in California reported on a potential lawsuit in Oakland in which a donation had been made to save specific high school athletic programs slated to be cut. A larger proportion of the programs to be cut involved female athletes, and parents were weighing legal options, seeing this could constitute a Title IX violation.

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The Gridiron Club has shifted the bonus for buying a T-shirt from free gate entry to a free pretzel and a bottle of water.

Vouchers will be given to those attendees wearing a T-shirt at the Admission Gate only,” Moore said. “One voucher per person, redeemable at the concession stand on a home game day.”

The booster group added the pretzel promotion due to concerns that not having something extra with the T-shirt could hurt sales, and make it difficult to recoup what the club paid for them. Shirt sale revenue also goes toward the football program’s SAT/ACT prep course, pre-game meals for the team and other necessities.

According to Moore, the Gridiron Club sells an average of 1,000 shirts a season, charging $15 for adults and $12 for students.

So far this year, they have sold about 30, both through the Gridiron Club directly and at All-Lacrosse on Valley Road.

We are having an in-school sale for students this Thursday and Friday,” she added. “That usually provides a good portion of the [overall] sales. We also sell a lot at the gate, but in the past the draw was the free admission. It should be interesting to see the reaction to them without free admission.”

Moore and other booster clubs are also concerned with fundraising efforts being split evenly among all sports. Some sports are supported more through donations than through district budgeting. Those teams depend on the donations they receive through their fundraising efforts for help with travel and other expenses during tournament or playoff time. Johnson said that it shouldn’t be a concern.

“All proceeds relating to fundraisers belong to the booster club leading said fundraiser,” she wrote.

But any fundraiser which involves free admission to an event in which ticket sales contribute to the general fund would likely run into the issue.

“Food concessions, T-shirts and the sort are welcomed fundraisers,” Johnson wrote. “The only tricky piece with the football booster club T-shirt effort [was that] the purchase of the booster T-shirt gave away funds that should, in fact, be collected for the benefit of our entire athletics.”

The district wants the school facilities to be available to booster clubs as well, but there has to be an approval process, she said. “Fundraisers on school grounds must be approved to ensure they are legal, fiscally sound and equitable.”

Moving forward, Johnson wants to be clear to the athletic booster clubs that the district is there to support them, even if sometimes it may seem they are at odds.

“We 100 percent support all of our booster clubs,” she said. “I fully support the great work of the football booster club.  My goal is to preserve great practice in a legal, ethical and equitable way. I am always looking for the win-win.”