Change to Thanksgiving Day football sparks controversy

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Thanksgiving Day and high school football go together like turkey and gravy for many Rhode Islanders, but the excitement may be minimized this year due to a ruling by the Rhode Island Interscholastic League.

The league approved a number of changes to the rulebook last month, one being that games played on Thanksgiving will no longer count in the season standings, essentially trading in decades-old rivalry showdowns for exhibitions. The decision ultimately came down to player safety and the belief that too many games were scheduled too closely together at that point in the season.

“Hopefully that will not minimize the importance and the attendance at those games, but I just think it’s important that schools, parents, and their athletes recognize the importance of recovery, the importance of maintaining appropriate medical conditioning between games, and therefore spreading the games out will be better for our athletes,” Tom Mezzanotte, executive director of the RILL, said.

Mezzanotte said schools will continue to play on Thanksgiving morning, but those games will now be “non-league games and will not count towards their record.”

Players and coaches from around the state are divided on that change, which goes into effect this coming fall.

Last season’s game between East Providence High School and LaSalle Academy was the 86th year in a row the two schools squared off on Thanksgiving.

“We are fired up,” said East Providence Athletic Director Bob Duarte. “This is a huge tradition for us, going back to 1927.”

“The kids were like, ‘why are we playing East Providence earlier in the year?’ and you had to explain to them why it was,” said LaSalle head coach Geoff Marcone. “They understand it, but their biggest concern was ‘well how many people are going to come to the Thanksgiving Day game?’”

Nearby Massachusetts implemented a similar change last season. In a poll of 171 Massachusetts high schools that were affected, 98 said their attendance declined and 71 said their attendance remained unchanged.

“The financial portion of this, this is a huge gate for us, and every other year we look forward to taking in this money because it helps to drive our athletic program,” Duarte added.

Cranston East and West are two more schools being impacted, the difference being they voted in favor of the change.

“The drawbacks in comparison to the safety really are minimal,” said Cranston Athletic Director Vin Varrechione. “There is a chance now you might play the same team three times in one season, and I don’t think anybody wants that.”

East Providence didn’t intend to disregard the concerns over player safety when they voted strongly against the change. They instead suggested eliminating the semi-final playoff game in favor of having just one playoff game, the Super Bowl, played between the top two teams.

“If one team is in the playoff and the other team may not be in the playoff, that importance to the playoff team isn’t there,” said East Providence head coach Sandy Gorham. “It may become almost a J.V. game, because the other team would be preparing for the Super Bowl game rather than the Thanksgiving Day game.”

Any games on Thanksgiving where the teams are in different divisions will continue to be played as normal. Also under the ruling, the semi-final playoff game normally played on a Tuesday will be moved to the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the Super Bowl will be scheduled no less than seven days after Thanksgiving.

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