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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."

One of Courtney's former pupils, who seven years ago set the California high school record in the 400 meters that still stands, is in his mid-twenties and might be contending for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team -- except he's in jail.

Paul Knox, football and track coach at Dorsey High, said of his 60-member football team: "We don't cut anybody from the team because being with the team keeps kids away from trouble."

Dorsey High is now infamous because of at least two of its football games were the backdrop for gang shootings. A baseball player fatally shot himself on the team bus. And the team's coach, Derrell Thomas, was arrested for drug use a few weeks later. While 70 percent of Dorsey's graduates continue their education, sports is obviously no longer the dreamy escape it used to be.

During a track meet at Dorsey last week, senior Abram Toomes, who runs the 100, pointed to his uniform and said, "Our coaches paid for these." Asked if he worried about high school sports becoming extinct in Los Angeles, he said, "Yeah, but man, I worry about schools closing down in general."

Even teenagers in the Los Angeles Unified School District are acutely aware of budget strains. The state of California asked the LAUSD -- the second-largest school district in the country -- to cut $200 million from its budget in 1990, $250 million in 1991, and $400 million this year. Of last year's quarter-billion dollar slash, $940,000 came from sports. Both boys gymnastics programs are gone. There's no more junior varsity football. Some sports lost playoff seasons.

Mark Slavkin, a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, saw this as the bright side. "At least in the end we didn't eliminate high school sports," he said during a recent conference on the matter. Slavkin notes that nobody has said a word about laying off "thousands of librarians, school psychologists and {having an average of} 40 kids per class in elementary school."

Slavkin went to Hamilton High, the school that produced Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon. "I'm not anti-sports," he said, proudly ticking off names of other professional athletes who went to Hamilton, "but we have to confront this on the overall budget context. L.A. will have 10,000 to 15,000 new students {next year} and with no new net money. High school sports will be on the chopping block as an issue for debate again this year. There's just no doubt about it. It's how much do you cut and where do you cut it. For high school sports to continue to expect general fund support into the future is a mistake."

Life on the Run

Karen Fletcher Briggs has found out about the lack of funds the hard way, out of her own pocket. As the person in charge of security at the 24th Street School -- elementary schools have security personnel in Los Angeles -- Fletcher Briggs started a track club on her own because there was no money available for the school to have one. She was a track star at L.A. High, grew up in south-central Los Angeles and still lives there.

Because there were so many kids who needed attention, Fletcher Briggs thought she could help 40 or 50 of them through her track club. Right away, 75 showed up to join. She doesn't get paid for her time; in fact, she feeds them some days, pays the entry fees for many of them when parents don't have the money or the inclination. She's close to being in the position of having to turn kids away.

One afternoon last week, at the junior high school field in Woodland Hills where the AAF's Learn and Play program is being conducted, Fletcher Briggs was in the middle of describing herself as "the baby sitter" when a third-grade girl walked up and called her "Mama." Two girls, one black, the other Asian, were walking together, both wearing blue T-shirts that say "Guilty," apparently in reference to the Rodney King verdict.

Of the 800 kids on the field that day, probably 50 percent were black, the other 50 percent were Hispanic, Asian and white or some combination of races. At least five different languages were identifiable. Fletcher Briggs is something of a Pied Piper with the 24th Street schoolers, regardless or race or ethnicity. She is 30 years old, and some days it's difficult for her to be this up. "Sometimes," she said, "I think I'm going to give up."

For a day or so recently, she did. Her resources were being stretched unbelievably and she just quit. But the kids pleaded for her return and wrote her notes. Their sad faces were far too much for her to withstand. So Fletcher Briggs is back, but warned that the club absolutely can't exceed 100 members. At the moment, students whose schools don't have track and field are coming over to the 24th Street School.

"The Mount Vernon kids are coming over," she said, her face breaking into a smile/grimace. "L.A. Youth Services canceled the annual track meet. No money."

Fletcher Briggs ran the 100, 200 and threw the shot. She ran in some TAC meets the last two summers and had aspirations of her own. "I was blessed growing up," she said. "My coaches were really coaches. Now we don't have coaches. There's no money. A teacher who's never competed or coached may be the 'coach.' There's so much they need, I mean bare necessities and values. We've got to start somewhere, so this is where I'm trying to start."

Not Much Choice

While the 24th Street kids may have no idea how fortunate they are, LAUSD's compliance adviser Steve Munoz does. "There's not much of a choice for these kids," he said. "There's nothing provided, there's nothing to get involved in. It's not just sports programs that are lacking in these neighborhoods, it's everything."

Willie West, legendary basketball coach at Crenshaw High whose pupils included Darryl Strawberry, Stevie Thompson and the Bullets' John Williams, was recently lamenting the downfall of high school sports, track and field particularly. "Kids have become so materialistic," he said. "The concept of selling drugs, which produces immediate money, seems to appeal to them more. A lot of kids who would be scholarship athletes need or want the money now. They see it as being easier, immediate."

In the days immediately following the riots, churches and sports might have been the most stabilizing factors in Los Angeles. One Saturday before 8 a.m., the only sounds you could hear in south L.A. were that of the omnipresent chopper hovering above, a basketball dribbling and the signature chatter of a pickup game. "Sports has always been the factor that pulled things back together after a crisis," West said. "It's always helped normalize and relax life after tension."

West added that he was talking about the short term. The bigger picture disturbs almost everybody with broad vision. Most major cities are having budget problems and most are losing promising athletes to drugs and crime. But Los Angeles, if not unique, is obviously the leader in a disturbing trend that few would have predicted 10 years ago. In the 1988 Summer Olympics, 168 of the 611 U.S. athletes -- 27 percent -- were from one state: California. It's estimated that two-thirds of that total had some connection to Southern California. These are the people the AAF's Patrick Escobar meant when he used the term "elite-level athlete."

Even if corporate sponsorship comes to the rescue financially, who will be there to spend the money on if the cemeteries, jail cells and gang rosters are occupied by kids who, if they'd only been born a generation earlier, might instead have been on the winning side in an increasingly lopsided tug-o-war?

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