School sports programs fight to stay alive in struggling economy
Wright, the Mount Vernon football coach, shudders to think about what might happen if he can't raise enough money for his team to play this season. "Football really is the key to everyone else playing," Wright said. "If football doesn't play, nobody plays." And if no one plays, Wright isn't sure what's left for those students to do after school. "It's a tough town," Wright said. "Sports are the alternative."
Mount Vernon is a four-square-mile city in Westchester County bordered by the Bronx to the south, Yonkers to the west and New Rochelle to the east. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mount Vernon is, economically speaking, an average New York town. The median household income is $41,128, while the state average is $43,393. In Mount Vernon, 14.2 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to 14.6 percent throughout the state. According to the FBI, however, Mount Vernon has a higher violent-crime rate than its neighbors. In 2005, the FBI counted 431.9 robberies per 100,000 people in Mount Vernon compared to 199.2 per 100,000 in the New York City metro area. Aggravated assaults (329.8 to 239.8) and gun assaults (54 to 17.6) also were more frequent in Mount Vernon than in New York City.
Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton Young knows the statistics. He also knows from experience how to avoid becoming one. Young's prowess on the track and in the classroom at Mount Vernon High helped pay his way to Morehouse College. Young, who has no say in how the school district allocates its funds, believes his office now must pick up the slack. He worries that if the athletic department can't raise the money, he'll have to pump more money into the police department and youth services. "These kind of programs teach these kids character," Young said. "They teach them to have self respect. And, just very bluntly, if we don't have sports, some of these kids are not going to school."
So to avoid throwing a significant portion of the town's high school population onto the street at 3:10 every afternoon, Young has launched the Save Our Sports program to help solicit private donations. Last month, the Bulls' Gordon traveled to Mount Vernon on a day's notice to help drum up support for the program. "I don't know where I'd be," Gordon said at a press conference to introduce the program, "without the support created by the Mount Vernon sports program... It kept us all off the streets."
In Grand Meadow, Minn., Grand Meadow High assistant wrestling coach Jim Richardson shares Young's belief that money not spent on sports eventually will be spent on law enforcement. Richardson has a unique perspective; he's also Grand Meadow's police chief. "I'd rather deal with them on the field or in the gym," Richardson said, "than at 2 a.m. in a cornfield." Recent budget cuts forced Grand Meadow to eliminate baseball, softball and golf. Richardson worries the cuts eventually will cost more than they save. "In America, it's all about investing," he said. "What do you want to invest in?"
Cutting sports also can turn a school into a ghost town. In March, California's Alameda Unified School District faced a mass exodus of athletes and honor students to other schools when the district decided to chop funding for sports and advanced placement classes. So the students decided to stage a mass exodus of their own to prove how valuable those programs were.
At California's Encinal High, which produced Willie Stargell, Dontrelle Willis and Jimmy Rollins, quarterback/safety/right fielder Jonathan Brown joined other student leaders in organizing a peaceful walkout that brought the district's two high schools to their knees for a day. Brown, the son of a police captain who is drawing football interest from Colorado and the Air Force Academy, said the students had to show the community how much the programs meant.
"We waited for everybody to get to school," Brown said. "At second period, everybody walked to the front of the school. A few people had bullhorns, saying we were going to walk all the way to the administrative offices to see the superintendent. That's on the other side of town, so it was a long walk."
Superintendent Ardella Dailey met with the students and explained that for the district to fund the programs, voters would have to pass Measure H, a $120 tax hike paid by each property owner. For the next two months, students rallied to support the measure, but when the polls closed June 3, it appeared the measure had fallen just short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass it. But over the next few days, as the absentee ballots came in, the pendulum swung. The measure passed by 34 votes.
"Luckily it did," Brown said. "Because if it didn't pass, a lot of people were going to be leaving."