Before Riots, Youth Programs in Shambles

By Michael Wilbon and Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 24, 1992; 8:00 AM

LOS ANGELES -- In the comfort of the San Fernando Valley, about 800 children from riot-torn neighborhoods in Los Angeles are learning the fundamentals of basketball, Olympic team handball and gymnastics. They are third, fourth and fifth graders bused from their schools, a 30-minute ride to another world.

Most never have seen a balance beam before. Some have never played sports on grass because street gangs have turned their neighborhoood parks into war zones. But on this particular day, because of the Learn and Play Olympic Sports Program, they play without fear of being caught in a crossfire and without the disconcerting noise of police helicopters searching for trouble.

As community leaders here and across the nation grope to understand the lessons of the Los Angeles riots, there is renewed discussion of what role sports can play in solving the crisis facing America's cities. Some think it may be too late. Urban playgrounds and schoolyards, once a spawning ground for some of the world's finest athletes, are no longer a safe and stable hub of community activity.

"The parks are not available to these kids because they've been taken over by gangs," said Patrick Escobar, who helps run the Learn and Play Olympics. "There's no money for coaching. At school they're given a ball and told, 'Go play.' "

Escobar walks a visitor through the field of dreams and says he is pleased that this grass-roots sports program will reach approximately 16,000 Los Angeles school kids during its 19-day run. He is fully aware, however, that the conditions that led to the recent riots and rage in Los Angeles also wreaked havoc with sports, particularly youth sports.

The system is already hurting. Money woes have forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to slash $850 million in the past three years. Sports programs have fared better than some departments, losing about $1 million last year, but the cutbacks are telling nonetheless. Some sports have been eliminated altogether; coaches have been laid off and not replaced; facilities are not being maintained. There's a lack of facilities and lack of supervision. Intramurals are being cut out.

"Ultimately, what I'm afraid we're going to see is these changes taking away your elite-level athlete, and that's where Southern California has always been the leader," Escobar said. Since the late 1950s, the area has produced more professional and Olympic athletes than any region in the country. "Will schools in the Valley or private schools be the only ones developing elite athletes?" Escobar said. "Are we encouraging that kind of stuff?"

From Games to War

Keith Peddler, a gang member who has been one of the leaders in forging a truce between his Bloods and the rival Crips, is one of the people encouraging the reinstitution of programs that might give kids in L.A.'s troubled areas an alternative. Traditionally, the black and Hispanic males who dominate this city's gang activity have found that the most visible, accessible and successful alternatives involved organized competition. "Some programs should be sports, some might not need to be," Peddler said. "Whatever, they better get to these kids by the third, fourth grade, while you can be successful instilling an anti-gang mentality. Because if you don't get the kids by then, the gangs will sure get 'em."

Those are sentiments echoed throughout the city, especially in the wake of the recent riots that claimed 54 lives. Sports, as a vehicle to facilitate upward mobility, has been a less-viable option in most major cities in recent years, but the situation in Los Angeles appears to be more distressing because of the prevalence of violent street gangs and the massive school budget cuts that have affected almost every sport.

During the riots, some attention was focused on the impact of the unrest on professional sports: the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Dodgers had games postponed, but very quickly pro sports resumed normal operation. By the time the Raiders and Clippers resume play in the fall, the burned-out stores surrounding the Coliseum and Sports Arena may be operational or even replaced.

The sports landscape at the youth and high school levels, however, has been and will continue to be dramatically altered. Kye Courtney, who coached Hawthorne High to seven straight state championships, has already noticed the pool of track and field athletes shrink noticeably. "The best sprinters in California are either in prison or they're dead," he said. "Most of these guys, they've got one parent or no parents. They live with their Uncle Anthony or with their grandmother. I'd say 70 percent of my team comes from split families.

"These kids are products of the inner city. And the problems are being compounded by gangs. The gang thing is a matter of survival. There's a lot of kids on probation on teams across the city. A lot of them have criminal records. You go to practice, one of your kids isn't there, you ask around to find out where he is. The kids say, 'Oh, he had to go to see his probation officer,' or 'He had to see his lawyer.' This is the first year I've started hearing that excuse."

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© 1992 The Washington Post Company