Many a high-school coach has this slogan posted somewhere in the locker room: ''When the going gets tough, the tough get going.''
The words are meant to inspire student-athletes to greater effort. But in the thinking of some of those same coaches, the going could hardly be tougher than it is today.
Tight budgets, coupled with rising costs and declining enrollments, are straining public education to the limit. And the first place many school boards and administrators look when the time comes to make cuts is their sports programs. Basic classroom instruction, the argument goes, must be preserved at all costs, whereas sports are the most extra of extracurricular activities.
Across the United States, public schools are dropping some team sports altogether. Others are reducing coaching staffs to the bare minimum, restricting their teams to playing opponents close to home, and using uniforms and equipment past the point they normally would. Many schools are even charging user fees of would-be athletes.
Ironically, all this is happening at a time when the quality of high-school athletic competition is higher than ever before, according to expert observers.
The situation is particularly poignant because in many communities high-school sports are a major source of entertainment and pride.
''Conditions in the schools are not bright,'' says Ross Merrick of the National Council of Secondary School Athletic Directors in Reston, Va. ''I don't see any daylight for athletic directors carrying on their programs the way they'd like to.''
California ''sort of invented the problem, with Prop. 13,'' says Thomas Byrnes, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation. That tax-cutting measure, passed by the voters in 1978, has affected the level of programs all across the public sector.