"It was the seniors who for some reason always seemed to cheer the loudest for all of Bartram's teams and for Bartram itself. Perhaps knowing that it was our last year in high school made us more responsive to the cheerleaders, the color guard and the band."—Bartram High School 1969 yearbook, Philadelphia.
On Thanksgiving Day this year Philadelphia's Central and Northeast High Schools would have met in football for the 75th time, perpetuating a rivalry that began in 1892 and is said to be the oldest between public high schools in the nation. On the same day Frankford High would have played Northeast Catholic, a public-parochial school neighborhood tradition that dates to 1927.
All of this—the games, the cheerleaders, the color guards, the bands, even the yearbooks preserving memories that grow fonder by the decade—may now be at an end in Philadelphia. Last June the city's school board, faced with an immense deficit in its $360 million budget, voted to discontinue all extracurricular activities in the 285 public schools. When the scholastic year begins next week there are to be no after-school activities—no art, music and journalism programs and no sports, either interscholastic or intramural. The savings, School Superintendent Mark Shedd says, will amount to $4.5 million, which helps some but not nearly enough. The school system still figures to run $35 million in the red this year.
Philadelphia's problem is becoming an increasingly familiar one. Across the country—in Cincinnati, in the affluent suburbs of Detroit, in Los Angeles—similar crises have developed. In San Francisco for the first time there will be no junior high school sports competition. In Oakland after it was announced the public school football program was in jeopardy enough money was donated or raised at celebrity banquets to maintain the sport, but it is decidedly an austerity operation—old uniforms and no non-league games. Such makeshift efforts apparently cannot bail Philadelphia out, and unless something unforeseen develops in the next few days it will become the first major city in the country to totally eliminate high school athletics.
September 5, 1971
Since announcing their decision, school board members and the responsible officials have been besieged by angry citizens. The city's newspapers carry columns of letters on the subject, virtually all of them pleading for a restoration of sports. School board meetings have been enlivened by what outgoing President Richardson Dilworth calls "hysterical denunciations." Dilworth, silver-haired and patrician, a former mayor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, professes surprise at the "violence and scope" of the response.
"This school system has an extraordinary history in art and music," he says. "Personally I am much sorrier to see this part of our program go. But all anybody seems to care about is varsity sports, an activity that involves comparatively few students. I've nothing against athletics—I played on one of Yale's worst football teams—but the overemphasis here is incredible. I think we're becoming a nation of spectators."
There have been sporadic efforts to raise funds to restore the program. Leonard Tose, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, gave the school district $55,000 from the proceeds of exhibition games. The board thanked him kindly, but noted that, under the financial circumstances, it could not assure him the money would be used to reinstate football. As Superintendent Shedd tirelessly explains, "Our problem is not a $350,000 problem [the amount needed to retain varsity sports], it is a $35 million problem."
The original budget called for expenditures of $393 million. That was whittled away at, and in the cutting process some 1,400 positions, including 600 teaching jobs, were eliminated. The only reductions that could then be made, Shedd says, were either curricular or extracurricular. The alternative to dropping after-school activities was to eliminate kindergarten and pre-school classes. The board felt the extracurricular programs, including varsity sports, were more expendable. Was this, as some claim, a political rather than a necessary financial move to force the city council's hand and arouse public interest in the schools' monetary plight?
"Any move you make in this area is political," Shedd says. "A decision to eliminate kindergarten would have been even more political. We would have had a worse furor if we'd done that. There you are talking about 24,000 little kids and their mommas. Why, they'd murder us."
Those in favor of restoring sports suggest that if the schools are as badly off as they say, why not sink a little deeper into debt and salvage a program that has proved its worth in reducing juvenile crime? 'If you're going to be a beggar for $35 million," says Ralph Schneider, acting president of the Philadelphia Mens Coaches Association, "why not be one for $36 million?"
Schneider insists the entire high school athletic program, including intramural and girls' sports, can be financed for $770,000, a piddling sum when compared with the district's overall financial obligations. He also maintains that sports involve in some way nearly half of Philadelphia's 59,000 high school youngsters. A recent survey showed that 94% of the varsity athletes graduated and 57% went on to college—this in a community where 60% of the students are black. College athletic scholarships worth an estimated $2.6 million were awarded this past year to 262 boys, 190 of them black.
"We know we help keep boys out of the gangs," Schneider says. "We have proved we are effective in fighting vandalism, violence and drug abuse. The best lesson to be learned from sports is self-discipline."
Sports also have been useful in just keeping youngsters from dropping out of school. "A whole lot of fellows only go to school because of sports," said Jimmy Baker, a basketball star at Olney High last season and winner of a scholarship to the University of Nevada. "If they cut sports out, kids will drop out. If there hadn't been sports, I'd have had nothing to look forward to when I woke up each morning."
The coaches, athletes and probably most Philadelphians simply do not believe the school board will stand by its decision. The city as it is probably has the worst youth gang problem in the U.S., and with sports no longer available there would be additional thousands of idle teen-agers in the streets. Yet the school board has held steadfastly to the position that it will not accept funds solely for the restoration of varsity sports. It says there are more urgent financial deficiencies. "As I see it," Schneider says, "we are in the ninth inning."
Philadelphia is in the midst of a mayoral election campaign in which both candidates, Thacher Longstreth and Frank Rizzo, have pledged to bring sports back to the schools. Neither, however, has said where he will get the money. "We'd give the schools more if we had it," says Victor Kendrick, a spokesman for the incumbent mayor, James Tate. But Tate recently vetoed a proposed over-the-bar liquor tax that would have provided the schools with an estimated $14 million in additional revenue. Tate, says Dilworth, is no friend of the schools.
Shedd and Dilworth, in the opinion of the coaches, are no friends of sport. In fact, both tend to dismiss the assertion that sports have provided an avenue to higher education for the city's blacks. To say that sports are the blacks' only outlet is, in Shedd's opinion, "racist talk." Dilworth is even more emphatic: "Art and music have done much more to stimulate the blacks' interest in school. Three out of four black athletes who go to college on athletic scholarships get virtually no education. They take physical education courses, then turn professional. They emerge from college semiliterate. Besides, most of the scholarships are to tramp colleges anyway."
The full impact of Philadelphia's sports lockout will not be felt until after Labor Day when school opens. "Then," says Shedd, "we expect them to storm the gates."
A high school without sports may seem to many a strange, lonely, even uninhabitable place. Philadelphia has enjoyed a long and rich athletic history. Among the more distinguished alumni are basketball's Wilt Chamberlain, Earl Monroe, Walt Hazzard, Wally Jones and Guy Rodgers; football's Leroy Kelly and baseball's Roy Campanella. Overbrook High alone has produced four High School All-America basketball players in the last 16 years; the first, Chamberlain; the last, Andre McCarter, who is headed for UCLA this fall. Overbrook Coach Paul Ward, who won six Public League and five city championships in 15 years, resigned two weeks ago to teach in suburban Pennsauken, N.J. Only a few coaches have followed Ward's course. Most have adopted a "wait-and-see" attitude. It is a costly waiting game, for if there are to be no sports, the coaches will lose, in some cases, as much as several thousand dollars in extra pay for their after-hours work.
"The eyes of the nation are on Philadelphia," says William (Sonny) Hill, who heads a summer basketball league for high school youngsters. "All the cities are looking for ways of saving money."
"The larger issue," says Shedd, "is will the urban schools be able to survive? Traditionally, the city has been a haven for subnations—the Irish, the Germans, the Jews. Now we have another subnation—the blacks. Will we let them make it? This thing has just got to turn around. We have to have more for education. The democratic system won't work without an educated populace. The alternative is suppression, and that doesn't work anywhere very long. Yet, we almost seem headed that way."
Shedd's rhetoric may seem melodramatic, but the issue he raises is no less important. The school board's decision—if it holds—will radically alter the educational experience for many Philadelphia children. And not just would-be athletes, but all the city's youngsters, since sport and the excitement and loyalties it generates help any school maintain a community of interests with its students. The loss will be incalculable.
On the rutted courts of the Columbus Square playground in South Philadelphia, Joe Anderson was shooting a few early-afternoon baskets before an admiring audience of small boys. Anderson was an All-Public League player for three years at Gratz High. He will enter Temple University this fall on a basketball scholarship. He is a tall, well-muscled black youth whose horn-rimmed glasses and small goatee lend him a scholarly mien. It is not an entirely inaccurate impression, for Anderson hopes to continue school, eventually earn a master's degree and teach in the city.
"When I was 13," he said, thinking back six years, "I didn't know what I'd be. I was hanging around the streets a lot. But my mom and my pop, even though they didn't go to school long, always wanted me to have an education. We didn't have that kind of money, but I was always good in sports, so we figured that would be my way.
"I went to Gratz. School wasn't the most interesting thing to me. It was no fun. The classes were crowded and, you know, you get kind of disgruntled. But my coach, John Chaney, he kept talking to me about my grades and about going on to college. He spent time with me. He was like a second father.
"What he did was help me to become a man. That's what I got out of sports. I don't know what I'd be without them."