This is the first of a two-part series detailing the state of high school athletic facilities in the District. Today's story looks at the many areas in need of repair and chronicles the liability concerns that arise from student-athletes' use of substandard facilities and equipment.
Cardozo High has "cracked and damaged outdoor" bleachers that need to be replaced. The locker rooms at Wilson "are in need of total renovation." The ceiling is "badly damaged" in the athletic addition at Coolidge; and there is a "gutted" locker room at Spingarn. Conditions like these often are encountered by student-athletes who compete for the 16 senior high schools in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Failing facilities are symptomatic of the state of District athletics--a decay brought on by severe cuts in funding in recent years that have frustrated coaches, who are coping with difficult working conditions and low pay, and dampened the enthusiasm of athletes. Perhaps most disconcerting, the District has left itself open to serious liability concerns by an inability to remedy inadequate athletic structures and inferior equipment.
Three studies commissioned in the past 12 years by D.C. Public Schools, which oversees DCIAA operations, have harshly criticized the treatment of athletic programs throughout the league, recommending increased spending and fundamental changes.
In the latest study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been contracted by the school system to manage the repair of facilities, inspected schools between August and December of 1998 and concluded many fields, courts, pools and locker rooms remain in unsatisfactory condition.
The alarms have been sounding for more than a decade. In 1987, the school system created the Task Force on Interscholastic Athletic Programs to study the condition of league programs. Its final report, released in November of that year, was withering.
"The present budget and funding level for athletics represents years of neglect," stated the report, which also noted "grossly inadequate and condemned facilities; substandard and insufficient amounts of equipment; dangerously ineffective security and safety measures; underpaid and poorly trained personnel and a drastic shortage of qualified coaches--all of these disturbing conditions dramatically illustrate the critical state of the program."
The task force, which was composed mostly of administrators and civic leaders, said the school system "has a responsibility to assist in the development of the entire person," and athletics were integral to that development. The committee found that the budget for athletics was "concealed within the Department of Health, Physical Education, Athletics and Safety" and urged the school system to clearly define the budget and increase athletic funding (including extra-duty, or coaches, pay) to $4.34 million. The report's conclusions were echoed in 1990 by the District's Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities.
The recommendations have mostly been unheeded. Since 1992, the school system has cut the DCIAA budget from approximately $3 million to its current $1.57 million, which is 0.29 percent of the $545 million school budget--according to Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, a District-based advocacy group for parents and students. The District's budget for fiscal year 2000, which includes funding for the school system, has not been approved by Congress.
Varsity teams other than football used to receive $1,000 each season from the DCIAA for equipment and supplies, said Allen Chin, who is the athletic director for the DCIAA. Football teams received $2,500, junior varsity teams received $800 and junior high and elementary school programs received smaller allocations, usually $500.
"Now they [sports teams] don't get anything," Chin said. "We don't have enough money to give to the schools at all."
The DCIAA monies must go farther than comparable budgets for school systems in Maryland and Virginia. Three counties have budget amounts similar to the District's: Anne Arundel County has a budget of approximately $800,000 for 12 schools; Howard County, $1.6 million for 10 schools; Fairfax County, $1.7 million for 23 schools. However, the DCIAA budget incorporates athletic events for the fourth through 12th grades, covering almost all 147 city schools. Athletic budgets for these counties fund only the ninth through 12th grades.
The DCIAA divvies up just $90,000 to $100,000 on equipment for the entire system, less than 15 percent of what was allocated earlier this decade. The situation forces individual schools to hold fund-raisers and to count on booster clubs to bring in money they used to expect. Coaches say they often have to buy equipment with their own money, further diminishing their take-home pay, which is already significantly lower than that for coaches in Maryland and Virginia.
"We're concerned about athletics, yes we are," said Ralph Neal, who recently was named assistant superintendent for student services and will oversee athletics in the District. "I would say it is a high 'C'. There's true room for improvement."
Coaches, administrators, parents, athletes and community activists go farther than Neal. They say the District's athletic programs are in desolate straits.
"The players on our team would be standout athletes if they had the equipment," said Dunbar running back James Lynch, who has unofficially committed to the University of Maryland. "In the weight room, it's terrible. We don't have much."
In Need of an Investment
The Dunbar weight room is under the gym, in the old driver's education room. There are no cushioned mats on the floor. Where simulators used to be, now are two worn-out benches for pressing weights. Nearby sits a broken leg press machine with worn out padding. The area is big enough for 20 to 25 players to use, but there is only one squat rack, and athletes have to take turns using the Universal weight machine, positioned in the middle of the room, because there is only one pin for the four weight stations.
Dunbar senior Daryll Ruth, a 6-foot-5, 330-pound guard-defensive tackle, has not seen much new equipment and said some of the hip, knee and thigh pads, after years of use, have turned from white to yellow or brown. Ruth, who is being recruited by several Division I schools including the University of Maryland, said the Crimson Tide has worn the same uniforms during his three seasons as a varsity player. His pants have holes that have been sewn or patched several times. During a game this season, Ruth's knee pads popped out through the holes, and he had to use a timeout to put them back in place.
Jerseys are a problem, too. Looking down at the hole stretching from under the arm and down the side of his game jersey, Ruth said he has seen tears in the shirts of DCIAA opponents. Dunbar's helmets, while being reconditioned on a regular basis, are old, and inside many, the padding is smashed and bent out of shape. The Crimson Tide was supposed to get new red jerseys this year, but the team didn't, which saddened Ruth. "To me, it's kind of a big thing because most of the guys, they want the best to wear out on the field," Ruth said. "You can't perform in old equipment that's going to come apart on the field, because you can't concentrate on the game.
"I think they should invest more money into the schools. They could do a better job fixing up the football field, having the grass cut and things like that."
In its January assessments, the Corps gave its lowest possible rating of "unsatisfactory" to athletic facilities at Ballou, Cardozo and Wilson. That means those facilities are "in need of immediate attention due to health and safety risk or, by simple observation, do not meet latest [applicable health or safety] Code."
Facilities at four other schools were described as "poor."
"We're in trouble again," said Chin, who was with the DCIAA when the 1987 report was released. He left the league in 1988 and, for about three years, was the athletic director at Anacostia. He returned to the DCIAA in 1991.
"In terms of our city and athletics, we have been sacrificed because we're not academics. But we go hand-in-hand" with academics, Chin said. "If we didn't have athletics, some of these kids wouldn't come to school."
Neal, a former player and coach in the District, agreed the two are related.
The athletic program "is just as important as the academic program as far as developing the total youth," he said. "We will evaluate the amount of money that is being spent for athletics. I will make some strong recommendations to place as much emphasis on athletics as we do on the academic program."
The situation has changed the opinions of some who historically have believed resources would be better used for academics.
"I'll tell you, I'm not somebody who said we should put money into athletics, but that was before I saw the programs at D.C. Public Schools," said Mary Levy, counsel for Parents United. "It's not a big-ticket item. We're talking about a fraction of the budget."
In 1987, the task force expressed concerns the D.C. Public School system was endangering students and leaving itself open to potential liability.
"The Athletics Department has been derelict in addressing the unsafe and unhealthy conditions that now exist," the report stated. "Because of the lack of empathy for medical needs and the safety of students, there have been no physicians or ambulances available at the majority of [football games]. This type of negligence places students in danger, exposing the school system to legal liability and possible lawsuits."
Twelve years later, physicians are required at football games in the District. Chin said the physicians are secured through George Washington University Hospital and Howard University Hospital. However, ambulances still are not required.
"We need ambulances in case there are injuries," said assistant superintendent Neal, who added that school officials would have to procure them through the fire department.
What's more, many District fields are an ankle's worst nightmare.
"Some of the fields have rocks on them," Chin said. "They're lumpy. They're bad, but our kids have dealt with it for so many years they are able to survive."
In the middle of this decade, when the budget crunch was at its worst, Chin made a decision he said he wouldn't make again. To save money, he took a chance with the District's football helmets, arguably the most important piece of safety equipment in high school athletics. The helmets are traditionally re-conditioned before every season, but with limited funds, Chin changed that policy.
"There was a time when we re-conditioned them every two years," he said. "We were able to get by. We didn't have any major injuries or lawsuits. But I wouldn't go two years any more."
Ironically, the steps the school system has taken to address the safety issues ultimately may be what haunts the system.
"I think the city has remarkably high exposure should an injury occur as a result of deficiencies," said Rod Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. "It seems unquestioned that liability in the millions of dollars is a distinct possibility here. As far as ambulances, if [having them at football games] is the accepted level of care, I would say the city is really running an enormous risk."
The coaches and athletes know it as well as anybody.
"If something happens, fingers will be pointed everywhere," said Bruce Bradford, H.D. Woodson's swimming coach. "A tragedy brings attention. . . . When bad news comes, things happen, heads roll."
Staff writer Jonell Priddle contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: The bureaucratic struggle for funding and frustrated coaches.
Since 1992, the budget for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association has been cut by 48 percent. The extra-duty pay, a separate budget devoted mostly to coaches' stipends, has been stagnant.
Althletic budget vs. actual expenditures (in millions of dollars)
* $410,000 was moved from the extra-duty pay budget to the DCIAA budget for the 1999 fiscal year, even though it is still used for extra-duty pay. So technically, the DCIAA budget went up to $1.98 million in 1999, while the extra-duty pay budget is $1.19 million.
In 1987, D.C. Public Schools created a task force to study high school athletic programs in the District. In its final report in November 1987, the task force recommended an increase in the budget to levels that have not yet been attained, even without adjusting for inflation. In addition, the current budget includes $472,580 for a trainers' program, which was implemented by court order early this decade.
Recommended budget Recommended budget Actual Budget
1987 dollars 1999 dollarsFiscal Year 1999
(Central Staff) $388,392 $568,570 $197,102
Extra-Duty pay (coaches' pay) $2,983,738 $4,367,919 $1,600,000
insurance, transportation $859,000 $1,257,497 $950,000
Trainers' program Not required Not required $472,580
Total (including extra-duty pay) $4,231,130 $6,193,986 $3,219,682
SOURCES: Parents United for D.C. Public Schools; DCPS Finance Division