Squeeze Play

In the neighborhoods that need them most, youth sports programs feel the pinch of widespread apathy

Gene Rushing, a soft-spoken, 27-year veteran of the Phoenix Fire Department, is accustomed to emergencies and sudden changes in stride. But he was stumped the night he showed up to coach a Pop Warner football practice in mid-August.

The first practice had gone pretty well. Five teams of helmeted kids running drills had flattened the overgrown shag of summer grass on the field behind the Byron Barry Elementary School off 59th Avenue.

But the next night, the school gate was closed, the lights were off. "We walked out there and the custodian wouldn't unlock the gate," says Rushing. "All he said was they didn't want us on the field. Then he just walked off."

Pop Warner players getting a few pointers.
Pop Warner players getting a few pointers.
Pop Warner players getting a few pointers.
Paolo Vescia
Pop Warner players getting a few pointers.

It is an all-too-common occurrence, says Vicki Gamby, commissioner of the Arizona Youth Football Federation (Pop Warner football). She and other officials of Phoenix-area youth-sports leagues say that too often obstacles stand in the way of children who most need the fields, the encouragement, and the relationships built on teamwork.

Pep-talking coaches like to say sports are a microcosm of life. Yet children's sports leagues, and other similar grassroots programs, may be even more telling.

They measure a community's resources in ways that other institutional programs don't. They reflect its ability to muster families, volunteers and businesses. They need easy access to parks and playing fields.

A New Times survey of sports leagues and other community-based programs shows that leagues in areas with high rates of juvenile crime are struggling to provide children with basic recreational opportunities outside of school.

And without the dedication of a core of volunteers, those opportunities might not exist at all.

In the Valley's underserved neighborhoods, leagues don't have access to the fields they need. They lack support from businesses. And in many areas -- rich and poor -- the only involvement too many parents or guardians are willing to have is to drop off and pick up their kids.

In some instances, parents can't or won't even do that. "When we started out in this 20 years ago," says Gamby, "all the moms and dads would show up two nights a week and on Saturday to sit and talk and watch the kids play.

"What's happened is it's become a baby-sitting service. They drop their kids off. They have nothing to do with it. Their kids are always looking for rides. So you're looking for volunteers? You can't even get them to show up for the kids' games."

A major problem for the south and west side teams is the lack of lighted fields.

In the Cartwright Elementary School District, centered on 59th Avenue and Thomas, the Byron Barry School is one of only six schools with lights. Eleven others in the district have none. And none of the schools have any gymnasiums that could be used for after-hours athletics. Only four of 11 school fields in the Isaac district around 41st Avenue and McDowell Road have lights. One site is substandard. And only six of 11 school fields in the Alhambra school district around 37th Avenue and Camelback are lighted.

The reasons for such deficiencies and the decline of some leagues run the gamut from poverty, and the failure or inability of many parents to give their children the time and attention they need, to the distintegration of families altogether.

In some instances, they also reflect a broader community and governmental failure to fund facilities necessary for basic recreational programs.

In the Isaac school district, for instance, "Neighbors resisted the installation of some lights," says Superintendent Jose Leyba. "And occasionally someone will complain about them. But for the most part, the majority of the community realizes it's a place to keep kids busy."

The city realized that, too. Between 1985 and 1992, it spent about $1.3 million to install lights at 84 schools. But many more schools need them.

The Maryvale area, where Rushing coaches, has one of the highest juvenile crime rates in the city. It's a community where children have had relatively little access to after-school programs, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and sports leagues.

Earlier this year, Deborah Dillon, Phoenix's Education Program Director, discovered the lack of programs in Maryvale and other areas of the west side with computer-aided study that mapped available services for kids. The city council has since voted to spend an additional $2.4 million to boost programs, but community leaders say those added programs won't eliminate the area's larger troubles.

"In the Maryvale area, we have such a difficult time," says Cynthia Booker, president of Pop Warner's west association, where Rushing coaches. The association encompasses an extensive area from Glendale Avenue to Baseline, 43rd Avenue to 83rd Avenue.

"The parents are terrible. The businesses don't support the league. We have a very difficult time getting fields to play on. I've been doing this for four and a half years. And I'm so frustrated I'm ready to hang up my hat.

"These things should not be so hard to put together. But to make it easier, you have to have a community that's willing to help."

Sometimes, as Booker and Rushing found out, it's just a matter of bureaucratic screw-up.

It turns out that there was no reason for Rushing to be locked out of Byron Barry Elementary School that recent August evening. School officials had bumped the Pop Warner league off the field -- without telling Booker -- because they thought a city-sponsored team needed the facility. District officials say they usually give priority to city teams because the city installed and helps to maintain the field lights, and an intergovernmental agreement with Phoenix requires it. Parks officials say they aren't aware of any such priority. And no clause in the agreement mentions it.

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