Sometimes a football game is more than a football game. Sometimes there’s more on the line than adolescent dreams, parental cheers and popcorn sales. Sometimes there’s educational philosophies, decades of tradition and mayoral campaign promises at stake.
So while Clark Ray has one simple job to do in the next 10 months — plan a championship football game for D.C. public high schools — it’s actually quite a bit more complex than that.
Yes, of course, there’s the venerable Turkey Bowl, the Thanksgiving Day matchup of the top two teams in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association. That, however, is part of the problem; the DCIAA includes only high schools in the D.C. Public Schools.
With more than 40 percent of students now attending independent charter schools rather than DCPS schools, Ray is faced with reconciling a storied history of D.C. schoolboy and schoolgirl athletics with a governance structure that is increasingly incompatible with the reality of public schooling in the District of Columbia.
Putting DCPS and charter students on a level playing field, as it were, has been a priority of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) — himself a schoolboy athlete of some renown — for some time, dating back to his term as D.C. Council chairman. Gray quietly made Ray, the former city parks and recreation director and an ex-D.C. Council candidate, the city’s first “statewide” athletic director last month.
Yes, the District is not a state; the “statewide” part of his title nods to his place in the administrative superstructure of State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley, who has responsibility for overseeing education in both DCPS and charter schools. It falls to Ray to bring the two under the same athletic aegis for the first time.
Ray’s first task — his only task at the moment — is to plan a new city football championship open to all public schools. It’s not a simple chore, and if he can accomplish it, the relentlessly upbeat Arkansan will have solved some of the larger obstacles that stand in the way of a more sweeping integration of DCPS and charter athletics.
“How that’s going to look, no one knows yet,” Ray said. “I’m sure everyone has many different opinions. ... Right now, the key word is flexible.”
Gray might seem to have made an odd choice in picking Ray to accomplish one of his signature goals — Ray was, after all, a member of predecessor Adrian M. Fenty’s Cabinet until showing political ambitions and taking on longtime incumbent Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).
But Ray kept a low profile after his failed council bid, and he’s kept a reputation for being a get-it-done kind of guy who can manage tricky politics and trickier personalities. And Ray said his ill-fated run and his new fatherhood have cured him of his political ambitions.
He’ll have to deploy his considerable energy, charm and political savvy in his new assignment. “There’s a little bit of everything involved,” he said. “There’s politics, there’s hurdles, there’s buy-in.”
For one, he’ll have to soothe concerns that integrating charter schools into school athletics programs means discarding decades of DCPS tradition. He’ll also have to address the even trickier issue of creating uniform eligibility standards across all public schools — something that’s been a particularly nettlesome issue in the past.
“The men and women who created the DCIAA certainly need to be paid homage,” Ray said. “We have to take the model they have and expand on it. ... I don’t think it will go away at all.”
But how that happens remains to be seen. Will charter high schools be granted admission to the DCIAA? Will the extant Washington Charter School Athletic Association be set up parallel to the DCIAA, to meet in a epic DCPS-charter showdown — much as the NFC and AFC champions meet in the Super Bowl?
Last week, Ray convened a first meeting of about a dozen DCPS and charter school coaches and athletic directors to talk through how they might go about bringing their worlds together via a football game.
The good news is that most everyone agrees the status quo cannot persist. The unsurprising and less good news is that there’s little consensus on how things should change.
Aazaar Abdul-Rahim — coach of charter Friendship Collegiate Academy’s extremely good football team, which last year could probably have beaten any DCIAA team — has as much as anyone to gain from a more equitable city athletics regime and said he’s been pleased with the initial talks.
“Both sides want to definitely get something accomplished,” he said. “I think both sides are open to discussion, but it’s going to be a little more difficult than a roundtable. ... At the end of the day, I don’t think everyone is going to be happy.”
DCPS interests, for one, appear to want to keep the Turkey Bowl and its holiday scheduling an all-DCPS affair, meaning a D.C. Super Bowl would likely get pushed into early December — about a month after charter schools, which don’t have playoffs, wrap up their schedules.
Abdul-Rahim said he’s willing to be flexible if others are. “I respect the other leagues. I respect tradition,” he said. “If we don’t play for a month, we won’t play for a month. We’ll figure out another week of games.”
He has faith in Ray to bring the sides together. “He’s a very charismatic person, and he’s able to be that mediator,” Abdul-Rahim said. His political skills, he added, “come in handy. There’s some tense type of situations.”
For now, this much is clear: The Turkey Bowl as we know it — a Thanksgiving Day matchup of the top DCPS teams — will survive at least through 2012, Ray said. But charter schools will have the opportunity to play in a citywide public school title game this year.
“You have the mayor’s commitment,” Ray said.