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The calendar indicates it’s again time to cite the individual who in the past 12 months set himself apart with a lack of whatever makes for a good sport.
Very recent events made this year’s competition a, well, slam dunk. So, without further delay, let us present Cheap Seats’ 2004 Unsportsman of the Year Award to—Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Kudos!
By now, everybody knows that the agreement Williams brought home from his talks with Major League Baseball makes the deals Dick Cheney negotiated with Halliburton look like bargains. Didn’t any of Williams’ minions alert him that there really is no place like his hometown for baseball before he gave away the store? Didn’t Jack Evans, who plays Clay Aiken to Williams’ Ruben Studdard in this year’s Unsportsman contest, tell him that Norfolk, Va., is strictly minor-league? That Portland, Ore., lacks people? That in Las Vegas, despite a mayor who’s lobbied for a baseball team to come to his town for years, there’s zero momentum to gift the baseball barons with a stadium? (And how would Major League Baseball, after so many decades of piety about the confederation’s distance from gambling, avoid looking like hypocrites by setting up shop in Sin City? They’d have to name the team the Black Sox.)
Negotiating nonskills alone were probably enough for Williams to capture the Unsportsman. But his post-deal behavior really put him behind the pack to stay. According to a Washington Post poll, 69 percent of city residents were initially against the package Williams presented for a vote. Yet when 10 of the 13 council votes—or 76.9 percent—went against the amount of public financing Williams had promised baseball honchos, the mayor ran to ESPN Radio and labeled the elected opposition “jackass councilmembers.”
Alas, enough jackasses jumped back in bed with Williams and Bud Selig this week to give the giveaway the go-ahead. But should the stadium deal collapse, and the mayor finds himself still geared up to spend public funds on a baseball team, there are other opportunities he could consider.
Take Wilson High School. Please.
Eddie Saah, the Wilson baseball coach and athletic director, has built a diamond dynasty. His teams have won 12 D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) titles in a row and 155 of their last 156 league games. All this despite being forced to play home games on the school’s football field, which can only be configured to host baseball only with one major concession: No right field. The only room for a right fielder is on Nebraska Avenue.
“We want a field that somebody would want to play baseball on,” says Saah. “We’ve been asking for something for a long time, but I don’t know if it will happen.”
Unfortunately, building piddly ol’ high-school fields won’t bring the mayor the thrill that spending $560 million in tax dollars would. But, if he’s still jonesing to spend public money on athletic facilities, well, how ’bout building a gymnasium for Cardozo High School?
The Cardozo boys’ basketball team did its city proud last year, first by winning the DCIAA title over Roosevelt High School. The Clerks then shocked the world, or at least a full house at the Smith Center, by beating Joe Wooten’s heavily favored and heavily moneyed Bishop Denis J. O’Connell squad, the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champion, to capture what’s still called the City Championship.
All this despite not having a home gym. The Expos at least got to play some of their games in Montreal last year. Cardozo hasn’t had a home game yet this century. The Clerks’ gym was condemned years ago by building inspectors because the bleachers were crumbling and unsafe.
No movement has been made to fix the place, either.
“I know the people at Cardozo would like a gym, one that they can actually play basketball in,” says Jordan Spooner, director of D.C. programs for the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit that monitors the state of D.C. public schools. “That doesn’t sound like too much to ask, does it? But there’s no certainty that’s going to happen anytime soon.”
For now, the Clerks will continue to call the gym at Roosevelt’s campus their home court—on the days when the rival RoughRiders don’t have dibs on it.
Optimists could make a case that the horrible conditions the Cardozo students had been subjected to year after year helped put last season’s basketball team on top. The DCIAA basketball championship, which consistently rates as the most exciting sporting event hosted by the city, is always played at Coolidge. Maybe the Cardozo players could identify with the aura of neglect that oozed out of the Coolidge gym, which is the biggest and supposedly best basketball facility our public-school system has to offer.
“There’s not even air conditioning in Coolidge’s gym,” steams Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 councilmember and a leading Williams antagonist over the stadium deal. “It’s like a sauna in there. Kids shouldn’t have to put up with that. It’s crazy.”
Not coincidentally, the D.C. public-school system, which was once the greatest breeding ground of basketball talent in the country—Spingarn High School alone produced Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Sherman Douglas, Michael Graham, Earl Jones, and others and ranks as the only school, public or private, that can boast having two alums on the all-time team the NBA announced in 1996—now loses most of its blue-chippers to private schools.
What with those great Under Armour/ Ralph Friedgen commercials and all, the kids today really want to protect their “house.”
Give Cardozo a house, Mr. Mayor.
And when city construction crews finish up with Cardozo’s hoops room, why not let them take a crack at the school’s swimming pool? Like the basketball gym, it’s unusable now because of neglect. Spooner says conventional wisdom among public-schools watchdogs holds that budgetary considerations will prevent the Cardozo pool from ever being rebuilt.
Cardozo’s isn’t the only school pool that’s crumbling these days. Actually, most of the city’s high-school pools are currently unusable. Yet the only construction under way in this realm is a demolition project. One evening in July 2003, a large wall beside the Wilson pool collapsed just 10 minutes after the pool had closed for the day, and the entire facility has been deemed unsafe ever since.
Even if the Wilson pool isn’t put back into commission, the swimmers will still have a leg up on their track-and-field counterparts. There are no longer any indoor meets inside the city. The city championships were held at the D.C. Armory—until that facility was deemed too dangerous. “They were still trying to make the kids run on old wood boards,” says Saah. “We had to pour some sticky substance on the track—I think it was Coca Cola—so kids wouldn’t fall down on the curves.”
The city championships in that sport are awarded at a track in Prince George’s County.
“That’s a terrible message to send to kids in this city: They’re not good enough to have a track of their own to run on,” says Cathy Reilly, director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals, and Educators, another D.C.-based schools watchdog.
And then Williams can tackle the lack of facilities in his city’s football program. Most of D.C.’s gridiron greats never get to experience the thrill of Friday-night lights. Despite years of discussion about providing city kids with lighted fields, something that student athletes in all the surrounding suburbs and pretty much everywhere else in the country take for granted, that hasn’t happened. So games are held on afternoons—when most football parents can’t even attend—in front of piddly crowds.
“My high school in Chicago played under the lights, and that was in the ’50s,” says Mary Levy of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which has studied the disparity between athletic spending between D.C. schools and their suburban counterparts for years. (One survey by Levy’s group found that D.C. spends about $50 per student on school athletics; Fairfax County, according to its latest budget, spends $91.)
Not coincidentally, D.C. public high schools are hemorrhaging football players to the privates. True, Dunbar High School has a consistently solid program, but even fielding a team has become an issue at some schools. Spingarn had four kids show up for the first day of football practice last year and didn’t have enough players to play a game until the DCIAA regular season was a month old.
Much like the basketball players at Cardozo, the Anacostia Indians football players haven’t really had a home venue since 2001. The team played one home game this season, then was told to get back on the road because the stadium wasn’t fit for use. Despite intervention from the Washington Redskins, who donated a reported half-million dollars to put new turf at Anacostia, a rebuilding project there has been far slower and costlier than anticipated. In 2002, when the estimated cost had gone from $1.9 million to $5 million, the school system tried to cut back on costs by resubmitting a building plan to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the body that was overseeing the contract. The money-saving solution eliminated all locker rooms.
The city’s neglect of student athletics was made plain last week, when the Post named its All-Met teams for seven fall sports. Of the 86 athletes honored, only one—Dunbar football’s James McDonald—came from a D.C. public school.
Spend our money on fixing that, Mr. Mayor, and you’ll find that your constituents won’t be against using public funds on sports. And you’ll never again be named Unsportsman of the Year. —Dave McKenna