Philip Lombardo wanted the third annual Candy Cane Classic basketball tournament to be perfect.
He put buckets of candy canes at the gym doors. He designed a giant Candy Cane Classic floor graphic to be stuck at center court. He nabbed Rubber City Pizza and Dick’s Sporting Goods as sponsors. And he even bought special NBA-related T-shirts for the players.
All this to thrill more than 300 area third- and fourth-graders who play basketball through the Catholic Youth Organization. The two-week tournament — used to raise money for the North Akron Catholic School’s sports programs — would be the best ever, mused Lombardo, the school’s athletic director and a major advocate for youth sports in the neighborhood.
But several days into the December event, the Candy Cane Classic and Lombardo ran afoul of CYO officials for violating rules. Silly rules, Lombardo says. Players weren’t wearing their CYO uniforms. Second-graders were playing. Some games were played before 1 p.m. And two non-CYO teams were participating. All no-nos.
Lombardo was ordered to fall in line or cancel the tournament.
To the disappointment of players and parents, Lombardo, whose son was on one of the non-CYO teams, abruptly shut down the event. The decision — which Lombardo admits can be called selfish on his part — has exposed a simmering resentment in the Akron area against the Catholic group, which oversees athletic programs with more than 12,000 participants in the eight-county Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
Lombardo and others are bashing CYO officials for escalating fees, having an autocratic approach and ruining a parish fundraiser that, ironically, generated money to pay the CYO fees.
“This was our fundraiser,” Lombardo said. “CYO doesn’t need to control everything. ’Cuz after all, we’re trying to raise money to pay them. To pay them!”
CYO — whose stated mission is “to help young people be more Christ-like in the way they live” — didn’t return calls seeking comment. Neither did the Rev. Joe Warner, pastor at Blessed Trinity, who delivered the ultimatum to cancel the tournament if the non-CYO teams were not removed.
Blessed Trinity issued a one-page news release stating its support for CYO.
“As a member of CYO, Blessed Trinity fully supports the priority to make sure that participant safety and participation is paramount for all athletes and teams,” the release says. “This includes attentiveness to rules and regulations that assure fair competition and equal opportunity as defined by the sports rules and regulations in the charter and by-laws of the CYO organization.”
It also says the parish and CYO organization supported the decision to halt the basketball tournament, and look forward to hosting CYO tournaments in the future.
Lombardo said he should have known that there would be problems with his tournament.
The Akron and Cleveland CYO merged operations last year, with Akron parishes now having to play by Cleveland rules. The Akron CYO had been looser and some have chafed at the tighter oversight and additional demands.
Lombardo decided early on not to have the Candy Cane Classic sanctioned by CYO.
But the group responded by contacting its teams and warning that they would be disciplined if they participated in a non-CYO-sanctioned Candy Cane Classic. Many coaches and athletic directors were irritated that CYO would use such a heavy-handed tactic.
Lombardo relented and paid the $25 fee to have the group endorse his event so the fundraiser could go forward.
But he encountered more problems, especially when CYO officials visited the tournament. They took issue with players not wearing the proper uniforms, and second-graders and non-CYO teams participating. They also stopped games one day because they had started before 1 p.m.
“They physically walked in and stopped everything with a crowded gym filled with parents,” referee Mike Capezuto said. “I just thought it really was done in poor taste.
“I think ultimately there were a lot of things that Phil could have done better. But once the tourney started, they needed to just let it go and let the adults suffer and not the kids.”
One of the main CYO beefs involved not having liability insurance for the second-graders or non-CYO teams, according to email correspondence provided to the Beacon Journal.
But Lombardo and others dismissed that complaint, noting that the parish had its own liability insurance used for other events held at the gym.
Lombardo also didn’t understand the issue with non-CYO teams participating. It doesn’t seem to follow the tenets of the Catholic faith, he said.
“It’s no different than a spaghetti dinner,” Lombardo said. “It’s no different than the cheerleading carwash. Are we going to look for IDs of only Catholics allowed here? That’s my point.”
Lombardo said he didn’t want to kick only some of the kids out of the tournament.
He said he’d still like to finish the Candy Cane Classic, and hopes that the parish and CYO can come to some resolution so the kids can finish the tournament. He has heard that some teams want a refund because they didn’t get to play a guaranteed number of games.
But Steve Culp, a coach of one of the non-CYO teams, said CYO officials have refused to meet and discuss the issue. They should be working toward a solution, he said.
George Theodore, who coached a team for St. Augustine in Barberton and supplied the NBA T-shirts through his business, Yellow Jacket T-Shirts, questioned why CYO had to butt in on a parish fundraiser. The event was expected to raise about $4,000.
“It had nothing to do with CYO; only the fact that CYO teams were participating,” he said.
Lombardo and others say the problem boils down to money.
“If it benefits their revenue stream directly, then they’re all for it,” he said. “But when it doesn’t benefit them directly, then they have issues and they have to have all this control over everything. But in the meantime, they washed their hands of tournament play. They’re letting the parishes do it as fundraisers. But yet they have the stones to say, ‘Do it our way. Do it our way.’?”
Parishes pay big bucks to CYO. For example, it costs $680 for an eight-game season for a third-grade basketball team. That’s up from $558 just two years ago.
To the chagrin of many coaches and parents, the number of games also has been declining. A few years ago, it was a 10-game season and tournaments were included in the fee.
Now that CYO isn’t running tournaments, teams must pay an additional entry fee.
The rising costs have hit inner-city and middle-class parishes especially hard.
“Really I think a lot of the issues are coming down to we’re being asked to pay more money, which means parents are being asked to pay more money or we need to fund raise more,” said Kevin Bagdon, athletic director at St. Joseph School in Cuyahoga Falls. “It’s paying more. Getting less. And having less freedom to do what you think is best for the kids and your program.”
Todd Vesko, who coached a team for St. Sebastian in Akron at the Candy Cane tournament, said he has mixed feelings about the Candy Cane dispute.
“CYO does a wonderful job and helps a tremendous amount of youth throughout the diocese,” he said. But the group also sometimes is obsessive about “dotting i’s and crossing t’s.”
“[Lombardo] just didn’t follow the letter of the law to the nth degree, and CYO expects you to follow the letter of the law to the nth degree. They do a lot of good that outweighs the pettiness,” Vesko said. “It was unfortunate. It’s just unfortunate.
“One thing I would say: It’s disappointing that Phil was trying to raise money for a pretty impoverished parish to pay the CYO fees. That is kind of ironic, to say the least.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.