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Youth Sports — Essential Recreation — but With Concerns

Special Report — Part 2

Sports like soccer, baseball and football are now run by private organizations, in partnership with the city. Is that better for children?

Most people think it is. Just in the past couple of years, football has gotten more organized. “The organization has existed for some time, but we have put some additional structure in place just this year,” said Jim Gibson, the commissioner of the football league. “We have an advisory board that includes coaches, parents, city staff and representatives from the high-school athletic department. Both T.C. athletic director A. K. Johnson and football coach Riki Ellison are involved. We want to make football better and more accessible to all children throughout the city.”

Gibson said that the organization formed because there were issues with the way the city was running the program. “I am certainly not blaming the staff for all of the problems,” he said. “A lot of it was about budget. The city did not have the money to pay for extra equipment that we sometimes needed. For example, I won’t let any child go onto the football field without a mouthpiece. If theirs is broken, then we get them another one. I was lucky because I have been coaching for a long time, and I simply go to the parents and tell them that it is their responsibility to support their child.”

The real issue for Gibson was the lack of a football field. “We had one real field at George Washington Middle School,” he said. “Because of the construction at GW, that is gone, and the city hasn’t replaced it. That just isn’t right and sends the message that football isn’t important. We are continuing to work on that issue.”

Gibson and his fellow coaches are responsible for recruiting, training and placing coaches. “We require every coach to complete an application, submit to a criminal history check, provide references and participate in a personal interview,” he said. “We also require that coaches attend at least four training seminars in order to be a head coach. Some people know the game but do not know how to relate to children. We have guidelines about what is appropriate discipline, and we monitor and respond to the concerns of parents. We can’t be at every practice or at every game, but we do monitor what’s happening throughout the season.”

The city manages the fields and provides equipment for the players. “We are going to go to elementary schools this spring and talk about football so that we can identify those children who are interested in playing next fall,” Gibson said. “I am sure that there are kids throughout the city who might want to play but just don’t know it’s an option.”

BASEBALL

Baseball has been separate for some time as well. “The city has always had an affiliation with Little League,” said Drew Carroll, an officer of Alexandria Little League. “For a while, the city ran the program, but about 10 years ago, a group of parents felt that they could do a better job and got organized.”

Alexandria Little League holds a citywide draft to ensure parity. “We went to that system about three years ago to allow more teams to participate in the Majors division and to have teams that are all competitive,” Carroll said. “We think that it has worked very well. The kids meet other kids from all parts of the city that they would not otherwise know, and we have good competition.”

Carroll said that there have been issues about competing for fields, but most of this has been resolved. “We used to have conflicts with soccer practice, but the city has done a pretty good job scheduling the fields in the last few years. We are glad that they maintain the fields because if we had to do that, we would have to raise a great deal more money than we do currently. The way it is now is a win-win for everyone — we get sponsors for the teams so that we can pay for uniforms, and we have money to make improvements to the fields, and that helps the city.”

Carroll said that the city also provides equipment. “They give us helmets, bats, catchers’ equipment and balls,” he said. “One of our board members is responsible for equipment inventory so when we need new equipment, that board member talks to the city. Many of the kids have their own bats, so we don’t always use what the city provides.”

As with football, Alexandria Little League also recruits coaches. “We follow both the Little League guidelines and the city guidelines,” Carroll said. “If there are issues, we deal with them.”

BLACK VS. WHITE

Rod Kuckro, who coached soccer and whose children have participated in baseball, basketball and soccer, said that the city should consider a draft for basketball.

“The city does not do a very good job of making sure that we have racially diverse teams,” he said. “This encourages an attitude that it is black against white, in some instances. If the city would go to a draft system like they have in baseball, it would make for more parity among the teams as well as encouraging kids from different races and cultures to learn to play together.

"I remember when I was coaching soccer; I asked the city to translate fliers into Spanish so that I could encourage some of the Hispanic children in the Mount Vernon neighborhood to join our team. The city wouldn’t do it. Youth sports is the perfect opportunity to teach our kids the values of inclusion that we talk about so much. The city should be taking the lead on this, and they are not.”

Tammi Hayes agrees with Kuckro. She has been coaching softball and basketball in Alexandria for nine years.

“We have teams that are almost all white and teams that are almost all black in basketball,” she said. “This year, I coached 12- and 13-year-old girls. My team was entirely white. When I found out that there wasn’t going to be a team at Nannie J. Lee, I asked if I could include some of those kids on my team. I was told that the parents and kids might not want to play on an all-white team. One girl came to play and played with us for the entire year. She was the best player on my team, and she made the rest of my kids play better. I think it was good for her as well, because she became friends with kids she wouldn’t ordinarily know. When we have a situation that kids aren’t continuing to play sports because of racial divisions, I think it’s unfortunate. We need to do more about this.”

Dana Lawhorne, a volunteer basketball coach, suggested forming an advisory group for youth basketball.

“In general, my kids have had good experiences with youth sports in the city,” Lawhorne said. “We just need to make it a good experience for everybody. Maybe if a group of us volunteered to help with basketball in the same way that is happening with soccer and baseball, things would improve.”

OFFICIATING

Whether the city is completely in charge or whether the sport is run cooperatively, officiating is an issue. Football has an agreement with the Northern Virginia League, which provides officials for high-school football games.

“The officiating is mediocre, at best,” Gibson said. “We recognize that the League uses youth sports as a training ground for those who want to be high-school officials. Usually, they are pretty good about sending us one seasoned veteran and one trainee. When we have concerns, we do talk with the League commissioner.”

Carroll has a different problem. “The group that we used last year is no longer able to provide umpires for our games,” he said. “We are recruiting volunteers, and the city is willing to pay some teen-agers.”

The city’s supervisor for Youth Sports, Lawrence “Lucky” Elliott, is concerned about the lack of umpires. “We are willing to train some teen-agers and then pay them to work the games,” he said.

Young people who umpire must be 14 or older. “We would certainly hope that we get some adult volunteers as well,” Elliott said.

Adult volunteers should contact Jim Wilson with Alexandria Little League at 703-299-8350. Teen-agers who are interested in training should call 703-838-4345.

—Reporter Carla Branch is the parent of three children who have played both recreational sports and at the high-school level in Alexandria. Her husband is a volunteer basketball coach. She is white, her husband is African American, and her children are bi-racial. She is also the president of the girls basketball booster club at T.C. Williams High School.