Mike LeGage is in his 22nd year as an athletic director, the past 13 at Scarborough High. He expects some ADs nearing retirement will choose to leave after this school year, but he worries more that younger athletic directors will choose a new career path because of the added job pressures that come with the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mike LeGage’s work day as Scarborough High’s athletic director routinely starts at 7 a.m. with emails and phone calls and ends around 10 p.m., when the last gym door has been locked and players and coaches have returned from the last late practice or road game.

He’ll interact with hundreds of students from Scarborough’s 74 middle and high school teams and many on the 112-person staff he hires, manages and evaluates. Volunteers are lined up to help manage games and events. About 50 extra-curricular clubs and 30 booster groups are his department’s responsibility. There’s needed communication with police and fire personnel at games, teachers and other school administrators, and of course his other busy peers.

“This job is a big responsibility to begin with,” said LeGage, in his 13th year at Scarborough and 22nd as an athletic director. “The job is very challenging. The difference with athletics is, the passion people have for it. It kind of makes it very much personal for people.”

Then came COVID.

As the pandemic drags near its two-year anniversary, Maine’s high school athletic administrators are feeling the strain. For the past two years, they’ve been coping with canceled seasons and postponed games, frustrated parents, and ever-changing protocols about how and when to play sports safely.

And it’s taking a toll.

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“There’s no question that this last two years has had an impact. It’s been very, very difficult,” said Gary Stevens, who is in his 26th year as an athletic director, the last 15 at Thornton Academy in Saco. “In some moments, I think it’s brought out the best in me in terms of trying to provide leadership, but also it’s revealed that we’re all human beings … and each one of us is frail.”

Maranacook Athletic Director Brant Remington called this winter “the worst season” since the canceled spring in 2020.

Brant Remington, the athletic director at Maranacook Community High in Readfield, keep tracks of games on a a whiteboard because there have been so many schedule changes due to COVID-19 postponements. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I think my biggest stress is the disappointment (from) the players,” he said. “(Scheduling) doesn’t totally stress me out. But when the kids are like ‘Oh, we don’t have a game, what’s going on?’ Just that disappointment. I deal with the stress pretty good, but there are times, I’d say right around the new year, it was starting to get to me.”

As the acting director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators’ Association, Gerry Durgin hears his peers’ concerns – and their fatigue. Durgin said he’s heard from some ADs who “are not sure how much longer they can do this.”

Durgin said he doubts the extra work of rescheduling games postponed by COVID protocols – a task made more difficult by a lack of bus drivers and game officials – or the even longer hours are the major issues.

“It’s more the culture of society as a whole. Mask vs. No Masks, Vaccination vs. No Vaccination, and the constant change in (standard operating procedures),” Durgin said in an email.

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“You deal with the frustration of parents, which is all over the place,” said Winthrop Athletic Director Joel Stoneton. “Tickets not being done properly, not knowing if they can go to a game or not, having trouble with being able to get the video. … There are just more wants and needs, not just from parents, but from everybody to pull it off. And if it’s not done correctly, you hear about it. There’s a lot of negative energy that burns you out quick.”

‘IF THIS IS HOW WE HAVE TO DO IT, THEN LET’S DO IT’

A year ago, the mental health of students who had their extra-curricular activities shut down or greatly limited was at the forefront of the conversation when it came to interscholastic athletics.

Now the athletes are back on the courts, tracks and wrestling mats. The winter championships will be contested.

For athletic directors in Maine, that is the reward.

Jeffrey Oliver is in his fourth year as the athletic director at York High, much of his tenure coming during pandemic restrictions. Steve Craig photo

York Athletic Director Jeffrey Oliver is relatively new to the job, taking the position as a first-time athletic administrator prior to the 2018-19 school year. He noted he’s now been an AD during a pandemic longer than he was in the job pre-pandemic, back before he had to worry about viruses, school and sport shutdowns, masks, social distancing and contact tracing.

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At a home basketball game last week, he was able to briefly take off his mask for a photo and smile.

“Just getting back to having the games, having a student section (of fans). I mean, it’s all good,” Oliver said. “Back when we were totally shut down, you could see it in students who were used to having athletics; they struggled with a lot of things. So this. … If this is how we have to do it, then let’s do it.”

With the return of fans for indoor games have come mask rules and spectator limits. And those rules and limits vary across the state. As the person in charge, the athletic director becomes the policy enforcer of his or her school’s rules and expectations.

“Personally, the hardest thing for me has been the emotional attacks, from people I know,” said Winthrop’s Stoneton. “They think it’s you and your political view. … People (aren’t) realizing it’s me just enforcing the job.”

Stoneton said he’s had to remove fans from Ramblers games for not following protocols.

“I had to have some people leave the other night because they wouldn’t wear their masks, had to have the police called, a couple of choice words thrown my way,” he said. “It doesn’t get under my skin from those people, because I know what it’s really about, but it’s just so much negativity all the time.”

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WIDE RANGE IN SALARIES

Athletic director burnout is not a new phenomenon. In 2006, Stevens was part of an MIAAA committee that conducted an in-depth survey of its members to determine why, as its report put it, “people are leaving the profession in droves.”

At that time, major changes to interscholastic athletics had transformed the position from a part-time duty to what needed to be a full-time administrative position – particularly at larger schools. Title IX had paved the way for a significant increase in the number of girls’ sports and teams. Sports like lacrosse, indoor track and volleyball became more common. Many schools added lights to their outdoor fields, making the work day longer. Sixty-three percent of the athletic directors who responded to the survey said they felt “overwhelmed” by the job.

In 2006, the level of pay was also a major concern for Maine athletic administrators. Stevens says financial compensation has “made major strides but you could argue a lot of that is geographically based.”

Durgin of the MIAAA said pay varies widely across the state. Some small school ADs are paid a stipend as small as $2,500 and “it goes all the way up to pretty close to $110,000.” Many larger schools athletic administrators earn pay equivalent to an assistant principal.

For many, like Freeport High’s Craig Sickels, a 38-year veteran in the profession, the job includes overseeing middle school athletics. Sickels also supervises athletics at Freeport Middle School and Durham Community School.

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“In the Western Maine Conference, there are very few ADs who don’t also have middle school responsibilities,” Sickels said.

Freeport Athletic Director Craig Sickels says the added tasks that come with the pandemic take a toll. “All I’ve done all day is sit at my computer multitasking. I’m just mentally exhausted.” Photo courtesy of Craig Sickels

For Sickels, the bus driver shortage has been particularly acute during the pandemic. He has two buses available to cover all athletic contests. His high school and middle school Nordic ski teams had to use private transportation – parents signed waivers beforehand – to get to their practices seven times between Jan. 17-28.

“I’ve got to get teams to games. Those contests involving other schools have to go first,” Sickels said.

Add in games postponed because of COVID-19, keeping an eye on nearly three dozen winter athletes coming out of quarantine and the return-to-play protocol, and trying to set a spring schedule, and the stress mounts.

“All I’ve done all day is sit at my computer multitasking. I’m just mentally exhausted,” Sickels said.

The seemingly never-ending nature of the pandemic makes it harder to mentally shut down today to be ready for the next day, said Nathan Priest, the AD at Morse High in Bath.

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“You lay in bed at night thinking about all that happened that day, and then think about all that could happen the next day,” Priest said. “You get sleep some nights, yes, but some nights definitely not.”

Karrah Ellis, the athletic director at 1,200-student Tantasqua Regional High in Fiskdale, Massachusetts, teaches a leadership course on stress management for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

“The job through the pandemic just became so much more. And there’s no manual to flip through – ‘In case of a pandemic this is how we operate,'” Ellis said. “It’s new to everyone and scary to everyone.”

Each new policy during the pandemic created a “domino effect,” Ellis said of having to figure out how to implement the policy, communicating the policy, and then dealing with the outcome.

“It’s hard when there’s only so much room on the plate and more and more keeps getting added to it. It’s tougher to do it well,” Ellis said. “And, you’re not getting calls saying, ‘Thanks so much for enforcing the mask mandate,’ or ‘Thanks so much for limiting attendance to immediate family members.’ You’re not getting those calls.”

TURNOVER LESS THAN USUAL

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Despite added pressures on athletic directors during the pandemic, there has not been much turnover. According to Stevens, 15 Maine high schools hired a new athletic director heading into the 2020-21 school year, with 16 new hires prior to the current school year. The 12-year average is 20 to 25 new hires. Some new hires each year are an athletic director moving to a new school.

“I really don’t know why turnover is less now than beforehand because certainly the job is more trying now and more difficult than it’s ever been,” Sickels said.

Skowhegan Athletic Director Jon Christopher said he’s heard from peers who are fed up with the job.

“I think a lot are close to there, if they’re not there,” he said. “But I think everybody’s hopeful, too, that things are going to turn. … It’s almost like people who struggled with justifying doing this job back when things were normal relative to now, all they really want is for it to be back to that.”

LeGage expects some athletic directors nearing retirement will decide that after this year, enough is enough. “I’m sure this has helped push some buttons,” he said. He’s more concerned younger athletic directors will base the job solely on their pandemic experience and decide they need a new career path.

But LeGage believes most will stay, ready to put the pandemic behind them, anxious to embrace a return to long, challenging and rewarding days.

“For a lot of us, it’s almost a calling.”

Central Maine Newspapers Sports Editor Bill Stewart contributed to this story.


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