"It was the seniors who for some reason always seemed to cheer the loudest for all of Bartram's teams and for Bartram itself. Perhaps knowing that it was our last year in high school made us more responsive to the cheerleaders, the color guard and the band."—Bartram High School 1969 yearbook, Philadelphia.
On Thanksgiving Day this year Philadelphia's Central and Northeast High Schools would have met in football for the 75th time, perpetuating a rivalry that began in 1892 and is said to be the oldest between public high schools in the nation. On the same day Frankford High would have played Northeast Catholic, a public-parochial school neighborhood tradition that dates to 1927.
All of this—the games, the cheerleaders, the color guards, the bands, even the yearbooks preserving memories that grow fonder by the decade—may now be at an end in Philadelphia. Last June the city's school board, faced with an immense deficit in its $360 million budget, voted to discontinue all extracurricular activities in the 285 public schools. When the scholastic year begins next week there are to be no after-school activities—no art, music and journalism programs and no sports, either interscholastic or intramural. The savings, School Superintendent Mark Shedd says, will amount to $4.5 million, which helps some but not nearly enough. The school system still figures to run $35 million in the red this year.
Philadelphia's problem is becoming an increasingly familiar one. Across the country—in Cincinnati, in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, in Los Angeles—similar crises have developed. In San Francisco for the first time there will be no junior high school sports competition. In Oakland after it was announced the public school football program was in jeopardy enough money was donated or raised at celebrity banquets to maintain the sport, but it is decidedly an austerity operation—old uniforms and no non-league games. Such makeshift efforts apparently cannot bail Philadelphia out, and unless something unforeseen develops in the next few days it will become the first major city in the country to totally eliminate high school athletics.
Since announcing their decision, school board members and the responsible officials have been besieged by angry citizens. The city's newspapers carry columns of letters on the subject, virtually all of them pleading for a restoration of sports. School board meetings have been enlivened by what outgoing President Richardson Dilworth calls "hysterical denunciations." Dilworth, silver-haired and patrician, a former mayor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, professes surprise at the "violence and scope" of the response.
"This school system has an extraordinary history in art and music," he says. "Personally I am much sorrier to see this part of our program go. But all anybody seems to care about is varsity sports, an activity that involves comparatively few students. I've nothing against athletics—I played on one of Yale's worst football teams—but the overemphasis here is incredible. I think we're becoming a nation of spectators."
There have been sporadic efforts to raise funds to restore the program. Leonard Tose, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, gave the school district $55,000 from the proceeds of exhibition games. The board thanked him kindly, but noted that, under the financial circumstances, it could not assure him the money would be used to reinstate football. As Superintendent Shedd tirelessly explains, "Our problem is not a $350,000 problem [the amount needed to retain varsity sports], it is a $35 million problem."
The original budget called for expenditures of $393 million. That was whittled away at, and in the cutting process some 1,400 positions, including 600 teaching jobs, were eliminated. The only reductions that could then be made, Shedd says, were either curricular or extracurricular. The alternative to dropping after-school activities was to eliminate kindergarten and pre-school classes. The board felt the extracurricular programs, including varsity sports, were more expendable. Was this, as some claim, a political rather than a necessary financial move to force the city council's hand and arouse public interest in the schools' monetary plight?
"Any move you make in this area is political," Shedd says. "A decision to eliminate kindergarten would have been even more political. We would have had a worse furor if we'd done that. There you are talking about 24,000 little kids and their mommas. Why, they'd murder us."
Those in favor of restoring sports suggest that if the schools are as badly off as they say, why not sink a little deeper into debt and salvage a program that has proved its worth in reducing juvenile crime? 'If you're going to be a beggar for $35 million," says Ralph Schneider, acting president of the Philadelphia Mens Coaches Association, "why not be one for $36 million?"