Posted: Thursday December 1, 2011 9:30AM ; Updated: Thursday December 1, 2011 9:57AM
Jeff Benedict
Jeff Benedict>SPORTS AND SOCIETY

Seeing gang problem in Compton was an eye-opening experience

Story Highlights

A trip to South Central L.A. solidifed focus for SI/CBS News story

Athletes are pressured by gangs, but in the end they need to make a choice

Many people in Compton are prisoners in neighborhood and can't go out after dark

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L.A. County Sheriff Sgt. Brandon Dean polices the many gangs in Compton, Calif.
L.A. County Sheriff Sgt. Brandon Dean polices the many gangs in Compton, Calif.
Deanne Fitzmaurice/SI

The presence of gang members on college sports teams is a topic my colleague Armen Keteyian and I started looking into last spring. After getting an exclusive look at a forthcoming study on the subject, we talked to many experts, but our story didn't come into focus until mid-September when we spent a weekend in Compton, Calif., the birthplace of the Bloods and Crips and one of the leading hot spots for college football and basketball recruiting.

Our first stop was the Los Angeles County Sheriff's substation there, where we met up with Sgt. Brandon Dean, head of the gang unit in Compton. The city's 10-square-mile footprint is home to 34 street gangs and more than 1,000 documented gang members. Dean, 34, agreed to give us a firsthand look. It was a ride I'll never forget.

Virtually every street was marked by gang graffiti. Names like "Fruit Town Piru," "CV3," and "Local13" were spray-painted on fences, walls, sidewalks and buildings. In numerous neighborhoods, opposite sides of the same street were occupied by rival gangs. "In this particular block right here," Dean said as he drove us through the intersection of Bliss and Aranbe, "there are about four different gangs."

SI: THE STORY OF KITAM HAMM

We spent 90 minutes with Dean. One of the last places he took us was a fast food joint called Louisiana Chicken. In 2009 a gang member walked into the restaurant and gunned down one of the city's top high school football stars, Dannie Farber. "Athletes in Compton are not immune from the violence in any way, shape or form," Dean told us.

The idea that top athletes don't get a free pass and may even be targeted by gangs was an eye-opener. It sheds light on one reason why student-athletes in places like Compton associate with gangs. For protection. Others join for prestige. But Dean told us that in many instances, gangs become a substitute family for teenage boys who don't have fathers and end up spending idle time on the street.

All of this was on my mind when I stepped onto the football field at Compton High later that afternoon. Keteyian and I had gone there to watch Compton play crosstown rival Dominguez High. With pad and pen in hand and nearly two hours to kill before kickoff, I went looking for people to interview. That's when I encountered Kitam Hamm, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound running back and safety. His helmet was tucked under his arm and he was talking to friends on the track near the end zone when I introduced myself.

"Are you being recruited by colleges?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Which ones?"

"Harvard, Stanford, Columbia."

That got my attention. Ivy League schools don't recruit athletes unless they are serious students. Hamm told me his GPA was around 3.8.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked.

"A lawyer."

"Why?"

"I like defending people."

These were not typical answers. Neither was his tone. He was humble and polite, soft-spoken, yet serious.

"Why don't you gang bang?" I asked.

"My dad would kill me," he said. "My dad said before he'd let a gang take me he'd take me out himself."

"Will your dad be at the game tonight?"

"My dad is at every game."

Sgt. Dean said that famlies without fathers were rampant in Compton. And here I was talking to a young man who credited his father with keeping him out of street gangs. I made a mental note -- find the father.

 
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