PSAL Divisions: Feast or Famine

The PSAL must solve its problem of division inequality that results in unfair competition that’s beneficial for neither party.

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By Hepzibah Srithas

In recent history, both Stuyvesant’s girls’ and boys’ basketball teams have maintained winning records and are consistently competitive within their respective divisions. Both are in the Manhattan AI league but are powerless in the race to first place thanks to Murry Bergtraum, a sports-centric school based in Lower Manhattan. The girls, the Phoenix, lost to Bergtraum by 51 and the boys, the Storm, lost by 48. These losses were not anomalies, with Bergtraum’s girls’ team winning their games by an average of 46 points, and the boys by 51. Murry Bergtraum is a newcomer in the girls’ league, playing their first year in this division after moving down from the AA league, where they were eliminated from the playoffs in the quarterfinals.

Murry Bergtraum is just one example of a PSAL team with a legacy of success, proven by their countless championship banners and trophies. Bergtraum recruits students, many of whom go on to play sports at higher levels, a practice that is illegal according to the PSAL rulebook. Still, Bergtraum brings in athletes every year who add to this pattern. Because of the school’s high-achieving program, Bergtraum has a sponsorship from Nike Elite and head-to-toe team-issued gear, an extremely rare partnership for a PSAL team. Their athletes often graduate to play basketball in college, so one should wonder why they play in a division against specialized high schools that prioritize academics. On the PSAL website, Murry Bergtraum posted a “Coach’s Preview of the Coming Season: We work hard to keep the tradition alive.” Yet, is this tradition truly the result of hard work, or is it a consequence of division-dropping and chip-chasing?

Inequity such as the disparity exemplified by Bergtraum disrupts the balance of the PSAL’s divisions, depriving teams in their respective leagues of the chance to hone their skills in fair games. When asked about these blowout games that result from inequitable divisions, Stuyvesant JV boys’ basketball coach Howard Barbin said, “Competition is supposed to be healthy. It’s disheartening. It’s defeating. I understand getting better by playing against better competition, but in league competition, I don’t see anything in it for either team.” When Bergtraum’s boys’ team played Washington Irving’s team on December 16, 2022, they won by a whopping 99 points.

The problem with defeating teams to this extent, besides showing the winner’s poor sportsmanship, is that it strips both the winner and the loser of a constructive game of basketball. A game in which a team is losing by 100 points offers little-to-no opportunity for growth. Barbin said, “What, are you there for their entertainment just to get stomped on and bullied? Make it more equitable, so that both teams get something out of it. It’s either feast or famine. There’s no in-between.”

These discrepancies are clearly pressing when teams opt out of games they know will be brutal runaways, as was the case for Seward Park, a school that forfeited their game against Bergtraum this season. Teams may consider forfeiting highly mismatched games because they can be both futile and unsafe for players. In fact, in the girls’ game against Bergtraum, senior co-captain Samantha Furman received a concussion as a result of rough defense. “It makes sense. When teams are too aggressive against teams that are worse than them, people get hurt,” said senior and girls’ basketball co-captain Caitlin Wong.

There are institutionalized reasons for these powerhouse teams. “The PSAL likes it when they have a team like that. It draws national and television attention and advertisements. They’ll look the other way in certain cases. They’ll play fast and loose with the rules,” Barbin said.

Evidently, the PSAL will make exceptions if it ultimately benefits them. Issues arise with teams that claim fraudulent ages, grades, and addresses for students. More specifically, the issue of division inequality within the PSAL this year stemmed from teams’ abilities to choose between staying in the AA division or moving down to the lower A division. This gave schools the opportunity to select their competition, resulting in dishonest changes that rippled through the league. Coach of the boys’ soccer, girls’ basketball, and softball teams Vincent Miller said, “In soccer, we had the option to be down in A, but we decided to play up in AA because we’re good enough to compete in AA. We could have stayed down in A and blown out a lot of teams and made it far in the playoffs, and [it was the] same thing with softball. I would rather play better competition and better teams. I want to play at our level.”

This choice, handled differently by different schools, poses the question: how should the PSAL manage divisions to avoid this imbalance? By taking into account hard statistics, previous records, and teams’ incoming rosters, the organization can help ensure that teams like Murry Bergtraum are not playing unchallenged for championship titles. The PSAL should not allow for clear divergences within divisions. Rather the PSAL is obligated to promote sportsmanship and healthy competition to prevent cold blowouts caused by mismatched teams. Boys’ varsity basketball coach Charles Sewell said, “I’ve always felt it is incumbent upon all PSAL coaches to remember that we are, first and foremost, educators. As such, we must teach our student-athletes to be compassionate in victory. There are numerous tactics a team can employ to slow a game down, maintain a comfortable lead, and limit the extent of a blowout.” By organizing divisions with the goal of equity, the PSAL could host safer, more constructive games for all teams.