Veteran teacher says sports divide is as much about race and class as gender

Patrick Welsh, a longtime English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, sat in a coffee shop, paging through the school’s most recent yearbook. He took out a pen and a piece of paper and methodically scanned the team photos of each of the school’s sports teams, looking for signs of diversity.

At a school of nearly 2,500 students, where African Americans make up 37 percent of the population, Hispanics 33 percent and whites 22 percent, the team photos were largely segregated. When it came to the girls’ sports, most teams were white.

He made tick marks tallying the majority race for each girls’ sport on a piece of paper:

Field hockey: white.

Lacrosse: white.

Soccer: white.

Volleyball: white.

Tennis: white.

Swimming: white.

Crew: white.

Basketball: black.

Cheerleading: black.

A similar racial divide held for boys sports — football and basketball teams largely black, crew, swim and golf teams mostly white.

The cross-country and track teams were the most integrated, Welsh said. And somewhat surprisingly, a handful of smiling Latino girls appeared in the photo of the wrestling team. (Full disclosure: I live in Alexandria and my son is on the cross country and track teams at T.C. Williams.)

As much as the photos most obviously show a student’s race, what they really show, Welsh said, is class.

“Many immigrant parents are worried about the next meal or their job. They don’t have the luxury that middle-class parents have of getting to Saturday games or joining leagues, so their kids don’t get involved at a young age the way a lot of middle-class kids do. It’s more of a class thing than a race thing.”

He pointed to one Latino girl in the photos of the track team.

“Many of the Latinos in track and crew are middle and upper middle-class girls who’ve been very Americanized,” he said. “This one is from Peru. She’s a great girl. She said her Latino friends call her ‘Gringa,’” because she participates in a sport they associate with whites.

Welsh had contacted me after I wrote about a Title IX complaint, lodged with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging that D.C. Public Schools fail to provide girls equal opportunities to play sports.

He said I should look at more than the issue of how girls have fewer opportunities to play sports than boys in D.C. — and other complaints show, across the country. In addition, he said, I needed to examine how few African American and Latino girls play sports.

What Welsh has observed in more than three decades as a teacher, and pointed out so obviously in the T.C. Williams yearbook, is something the Department of Education documented in a 2007 study of high school sophomores. The study found that 51 percent of all white sophomore girls played sports, while only 40 percent of African American girls, 34 percent of Asian girls and 32 percent of Hispanic girls did.

But the same was not true for boys of color. Fifty-one percent of African American sophomore boys played sports, as did 44 percent of Hispanic boys.

Welsh has written provacatively and elegantly for years about facing down the hard realities of race and class in a diverse T.C. Williams — ironically named for a segregationist superintendent who favored “massive resistance” over integration.

In the days in 2000 after Disney released “Remember the Titans,” the feel-good story of the integration of T.C. Williams and the triumph of racial harmony and brotherhood forged through sports, Welsh wrote a piece for the Washington Post’s Outlook section called “Separate Fields of Play.”

Today, at T.C. Williams and, I suspect, at many other schools, too many kids are being deprived of that Titans-like bonding experience because sports themselves have become stereotyped: There are “black” sports and “white” sports, and few students dare to cross the racial divide . . .

The division starts early with sports programs for elementary and middle-school students. The soccer teams, sponsored by the Alexandria Soccer Association, are virtually all white, and coached and run by white moms and dads. The Alexandria Recreation League’s football teams are virtually all black, with most of the players coming from public housing. I often wonder if the problem in Alexandria is that there are too many of these public housing kids playing football for the comfort of white middle-class parents. Do football and other sports, like schools, have a “tipping point,” a level of low-income black participants at which most white families--and often middle-class black families--will start to pull out? Given that overwhelmingly white neighborhoods in Fairfax County have hundreds of kids playing in youth football leagues, it seems obvious to me that in Alexandria, race--and, to some extent, social class--have to be major factors in keeping whites away from youth football and thus football at T.C. Williams.

Welsh’s piece was a lament for the kind of bonding and friendship that can happen across race and class divides on the field of sports.

His solution to the racial divide in sports at the school then, and to the racial divide in sports for girls now is the same: start early.

“For things to change, there’d have to be some real effort by the Rec Department or someone to get the kids interested when they’re young.”

Brigid Schulte writes about Good-Life: work-life issues, time, productivity, gender and income inequality. She is the author of the bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has Time.

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