It was the first weekend in September, and the organizers of the D.C. Stoddert Soccer League were about to unleash more than 5,000 shinguard-sporting youth soccer players on D.C.’s fields. They’d spent months preparing: There had been tryouts, PR campaigns, gigabytes of e-mails, and enough meetings to run a Cabinet agency. Registration materials had been sent out to parents. Funds had been raised. Someone had accidentally scheduled games on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, angering many parents, but it was too late to worry about it now.
Besides, they had bigger problems. Stoddert had arranged, in conjunction with another league, for a game to be played at the John Burroughs Elementary School, in Northeast. While the soccer people were gung-ho about the contest, community members didn’t share the enthusiasm.
A group of neighbors, including Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner the Rev. Ruth “Mother” Goodwin, who has lived in the majority-African-American community around the school since 1961, were angry that the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DCPR) had sanctioned the game on the Burroughs field. The neighbors argued that the soccer game would be an affront to their community, because their own children have virtually no access to the sport.
“When was the last time you saw a black kid playing soccer?” asks Goodwin. “All of the players but one who showed up for that game were Caucasian. No one has ever come to John Burroughs to even offer to teach our children to play soccer….The people here are not going to stand for it. We resent a takeover of our community.”
Goodwin and her neighbors organized a sit-in, telling league representatives that if they tried to play the game, the neighbors would take seats in the middle of the playing field. Eventually, two uniformed DCPR urban rangers and a D.C. police officer got involved. Just before game time, there were 10 advisory neighborhood commissioners, roughly 30 other neighbors, league representatives, and more than 40 kids and parents standing on and around the field.
When the neighbors wouldn’t budge, the game was moved to a football field at the Taft Junior High School. Unlike the Burroughs field, Taft’s wasn’t quite ready for a soccer gamethe Stoddert folks had to hastily attach soccer nets to the football goalposts, which were too small to support them.
Stoddert leaders have some sense of what was behind the sit-in. Though they engage in outreach programs around the city, the folks behind Stoddert acknowledge that their league is made up largely of affluent, white families, many of whom come from Ward 3. Such families have organizing skills, cash, and energy in abundance. What they don’t have is green space. When they alight on a neighborhood that doesn’t share their demographics, they step over all the District’s fissuresclass and raceas well as its unique brand of parochialism.
“While I don’t think it’s appropriate for a community organization to prevent any athletic group from using a field with a valid permit, I have some sympathy for these folks,” says Graeme Bush, who chairs the board that oversees the Stoddert League. “Suddenly people from elsewhere in the city show up, and the grass gets cut.” Community members say they were particularly frustrated that the grass at the field was not trimmed until just before the soccer game was to take place, even though they had long been pleading with the DCPR to break out the lawn mowers.
Stoddert might be able to get along just fine if all it had to do was patch over relations with aggrieved neighborhoods. Yet the league, now in its 26th year, also finds itself in an often stormy relationship with the DCPR. Though Stoddert has sunk more than $500,000 into park facilities in the past decade, the agency is now asking for more. Starting next spring, the DCPR is planning to charge a user fee to all private organizations that want to use the city’s fields. While the final structure of the fee is still up for debate, the agency has proposed that it charge $26 per player each season. Such a fee would cost Stoddert about $250,000 per year and force the league to raise its fees by almost 50 percent.
“It’s frustrating that a parent that already pays high taxes to live in this city also has to pay a user fee for the facilities,” says Charlie Myers, who is the Stoddert fields committee chair, a volunteer position. “It seems like I’m paying a huge amount of money to the District government for the opportunity to pay more.”
Thom Heath, who coaches a Stoddert team, has had a hard time just getting kids on the field lately. Last fall, the sniper shootings kept his players inside; in the spring, heavy rains washed out most of his games.
His more recent problems have been man-made. No one cleared the overgrowth in the drainage ditch this past spring near the field by the Alice Deal Junior High in Northwest, which sits at the bottom of a steep hill. As a result, the groundwater under the field quickly became saturated, and every storm wreaked havoc on the flooded pitch. The situation got so bad that, for months, two ducks made their homes on a small pond that had formed in the middle of the playing area. The field eventually dried out, but the water erosion left depressions and divots that Stoddert organizers were concerned would be hazardous for the players.
The organizers turned to the DCPR for help, asking the department to import soil so that the field would be smoothed over before the league’s opening weekend in September. The agency agreed, but when Stoddert officials showed up hours before the first game of the season, they discovered that the fill supplied by the agency contained large rocks, bricks, logs, broken concrete, and pieces of glass. The DCPR says it had been planning to treat the field before the game, but Stoddert officials arrived before they did.
With the DCPR nowhere in sight and the game soon to begin, however, Charlie Tetrault, a coach and parent, headed for his car to get a rake and a shovel, items he keeps for just such situations. Tetrault and other parents meticulously inspected the soil, removing assorted debris and afterward marveling at the size of the rocks and logs they had extracted.
“I never thought that being a soccer dad would require a rake,” said Tetrault, looking over the debris.
A rake, yesand a checkbook. Stoddert has dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the city’s green space. It has paid to rehabilitate dilapidated facilities and picked up the cost of maintaining numerous D.C. fields. The league has installed irrigation systems, paid for grass fertilization, and overseen reseeding programs. It has also sparred with the DCPR over who, exactly, should be responsible for picking up the bill.
When Stoddert agreed to pay for renovations to the fields at the Hearst and Fort Stevens Recreation Centers, for example, the DCPR said it would pay the full cost of subsequent maintenance. Not long afterward, however, Stoddert, in a bid to make sure the work was done to its high standards, agreed to pay half of the maintenance fees. The work did get done, but the DCPR didn’t pick up its half of the bill. When the league complained, the agency said it would not pay for anything more than mowingmeaning that the lion’s share of the maintenance for the public fields would be Stoddert’s responsibility.
DCPR brass suffer few pangs of conscience in dunning Stoddert. Because the league’s games are often responsible for wearing down the fields, they reason, the agency is justified in asking Stoddert families to pay a fee for their upkeep.
And as the department knows, the league has not traditionally had a tough time raising money. Stoddert’s fundraising tactics are aggressively low-pressure: When parents fill out the soccer registration forms for their kids, they have the option of checking a box and writing in a donation to supplement the standard fees. In a typical year, the league raises about $75,000 in this fashion. When organizers have needed an infusion of cash to renovate a field, they’ve sent out a letter saying so, and their donations have doubled. League officials estimate that they have raised $600,000 to $700,000 in the past 10 years. Just imagine what might happen if they started making phone calls.
“It’s held against us that we’re able to raise money so easily,” says Tom Gross, the Stoddert league administrator. “If we need money for one reason or another, it’s very simple: We just ask. It’s a function of trustif we say we need it, our parents believe us. That’s why fundraising is so easywe don’t have to sell ourselves.”
Last year, Stoddert, a nonprofit, had an operating budget of close to $1 million. The league charges parents $65 per season for players, who can range in age from 4 to 19. Stoddert also gives out about $40,000 each year in scholarships, enough for roughly 500 kids. According to Gross, it has never turned away a player for financial reasons.
For DCPR officials used to grappling with tightfisted city administrators, the ease with which the league raises money makes Stoddert a tempting target. Most of the significant work on the city’s fields in the past decade has come at the initiative of the league; the cash-starved DCPR has focused simply on staving off further field deterioration.
“We’re trying to maintain what’s already in place,” says DCPR spokesperson Terry Lee, whose department has an annual local operating budget of $31.6 million, $600,000 of which goes toward maintaining the city’s fields. “The idea is to make more fields, but I can’t say there are plans right now to do so.” The DCPR is reopening the Emory, Kennedy, North Michigan, and Sherwood Recreation Centers in the near future, though only Sherwood has a “multipurpose field” that can be used for soccer. (The other three feature baseball diamonds.) Turkey Thicket Park, which will offer a soccer field, reopens next year.
Most of Stoddert’s rehabilitation efforts have, unsurprisingly, taken place in the neighborhoods where the most parents live. As Northwest soccer fields have undergone a mini-renaissance at Stoddert’s expense, fields in the rest of the city have languished. Such a disparity is inevitable when a city leans on private organizations to support what is traditionally a public responsibility.
“If someone on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Avenue offers to provide funding for a field or recreation center, we’ll work with them as well,” says Lee. “But that hasn’t happened yet.” There is significant undeveloped green space east of the Anacostia River, particularly in the Kenilworth and Anacostia Park areas, but no plan, or available funding, to turn the space into functioning fields.
Stoddert isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the DCPR’s positionmany league officials openly question whether the department has been given the resources it needs. As a result, they haven’t griped too much about picking up the bill for work that would traditionally be paid for with city taxes. Now that the department is planning to institutionalize the arrangement by charging a use fee, however, many Stoddert parents feel slighted. They believe that they’re being subjected to an old D.C. tricknamely, city agencies shaking people down for big bucks and giving little service in return.
“We’ve overcome the schools, and we’re paying an exorbitant amount in taxes,” says Mary Cepko, a Stoddert parent and league commissioner. “We’re getting the bare minimum in city services. You want to support the city soccer leaguewhich you already pay forand then they come at you with something like this. These are the things that drive people away. We’re not going to go away, but we know a lot of people who have.”
Lee says the fee is unavoidable.
“The city is struggling due to a deep drop in revenue, so in order to provide services, we have to look at every possible funding source,” says Lee. “This regulation was already on the books. It was an oversight that we hadn’t taken advantage of until now.”
In the end, the added cost may not have a huge impact on the league. Odds are many parents will just fork over the additional cash, curse under their breath so their kids don’t hear it, and plow ahead. And maybe the fee will somehow get the NIMBY folks off their backs.
The sit-in at the Burroughs field, meanwhile, has league supporters wondering whether they’ll run into trouble whenever they venture out of Northwest for matches. Latino activist Arnoldo Ramos, a Stoddert parent whose three sons are avid soccer players, says the confrontation exposes D.C. as “an atomized, parochial city where people are constantly trying to defend their turf.” He argues that city leaders are missing an opportunity to leverage youth soccer into a tool for unity.
“Soccer is diversity par excellence,” says Ramos. “There are kids from upper-, middle-, and lower-class communities who play, kids from all different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. It ought to be one of the key integrating tools in the city. Instead, people here feel so antagonized that they revert to this parochial state where they automatically see outsiders as foreigners.”
Stoddert has also alienated some people in the league’s well-to-do back yard, who are outraged about the overuse of fields. During its two nine-week seasons each year, Stoddert uses many of its playing fields seven days a week.
“The bottom line is that it’s vandalism,” says Kent Slowinski, a landscape architect who lives near Hardy Field in Foxhall, which has long been used by Stoddert. “They overuse the fields….They just want to get as much out of them as they can.”
Slowinski and some of his neighbors have been known to come out of their houses to tell coaches to halt practices or games, saying that the field is not in playing condition. He once called the police to report that a group of girls were playing within 24 hours of a rainstorm, which he says is a violation of DCPR regulations.
“Some of these neighbors want the fields to be dog tracks or parks they can walk around in,” says Gross. “We’re trying to maintain a league for the benefits the city, and some of these people make it very difficult.”
This year, thanks in part to neighborhood pressure, the DCPR withheld permits for the league to play on Sundays on two of its primary fields, at Hardy and Hearst.
The issue is particularly contentious for the league because Stoddert raised roughly $100,000 to rehab the field at Hearst eight years ago; previously, says Gross, the area had been a “dust bowl.” Before the rehab, travel leagues from Maryland and Virginia had used the field regularly, without contributing to its upkeep. Stoddert, by contrast, has spent $30,000 since its initial investment to keep it in relatively good shape.
“Fields are a limited resource, and it’s tough,” says Stoddert board chair Bush. “We’re using our fields well less than half the time. Unless we want to tell kids in D.C. they can’t play soccer here, we’ve got to make some tough decisions.”
The league plays its “travel soccer” games, for the more serious players who might want to attract collegiate scouts, on Sundays. Without the use of the Hearst and Hardy fields, many of those teams had nowhere to play home games. The DCPR suggested alternate fields for the league to use, many of which were in other parts of the city, but league officials complained that the fields being offered either were too small or contained physical hazards. The field at the Benning-Stoddert Recreation Center, for example, features a manhole cover in the middle of the playing area. Many of those games have since been shifted to public-school fields.
And just as green space has divided locals by race and class, it’s also responsible for driving a wedge between local sports partisans. Soccer teams and baseball squads are feuding over the scarce fields inside District boundaries. Ward 4 resident Julie Meyer, who is married to Ramos, complains that, at the park near her house, at 14th and Upshur Streets NW, a baseball diamond was fixed up approximately five years ago, despite the fact that “nobody ever plays baseball there.” There are probably between 2,000 and 3,000 youth baseball players in D.C., divided into eight leagues. Ann Kane, the president and co-founder of the Capitol City Little League, which serves about 500 kids, says that Stoddert would put less demand on the city’s fields if it ended its practice of accepting kids from Virginia and Maryland into the league.
“Our rule of thumb is that you can’t take the kids if you don’t have a place for them to play,” says Kane, pointing out that the D.C. baseball leagues serve only D.C. youth. “A large part of the reason soccer is bigger now is that they have no geographic restrictions. They take everybody. That means they just grow and grow, and it puts a strain on the fields. This city was not planned like a suburban community. It’s a city.”
The problem is not people, says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, but space. “There are just not sufficient facilities in D.C. to support the league,” says Patterson, whose daughter plays on a Stoddert team. The councilmember is pushing the city to work with the National Park Service to follow through on a plan to develop fields at Fort Reno.
Bill Patton, the president of Turf Center Lawns, which maintains many of the District’s fields, argues that Stoddert fills a gap left by a lack of funding on the part of the city for adequate sporting facilities.
“Stoddert overuses the fields, but they’re paying to overuse them,” says Patton. “D.C. needs help. They don’t have enough money to do the necessary maintenance. The best fields in the city are those maintained by private organizations like Stoddert.” The league spent $150,000 to renovate a field at Fort Stevens, and also pays for the upkeep of fields at Deal, Hearst, and the Jelleff Boys & Girls Club.
It still has a long way to go, however, if it wants to get D.C.’s facilities to the point where they are comparable to those offered in neighboring communities. Even Stoddert officials admit they push D.C.’s fields hard.
“A lot of the fields we have to play on are usually not in great shape,” says Meyer. “It’s kind of embarrassing when we’re hosting home travel games over at Takoma Rec [Center], and there’s a baseball mound in the middle of the field. You can see it on the faces of the parents who’ve brought their kids in from Virginia and Marylandit just reinforces in their heads all of the reasons it’s better to live in the suburbs.”
At the Stoddert-sponsored Cherry Blossom Soccer Tournament a few years ago, Jim Ferguson, the founder and president of the Washington Soccer Club, a youth league that works closely with Stoddert, overheard a parent from New Jersey who was surveying the games, which were being played on the Mall. “I can’t believe,” Ferguson remembers her saying, “that we paid money and drove down here for this.”
An underfunded parks department, angry neighbors, sniping from other sports, eager playersat bottom, Stoddert parents have learned that running a soccer league in the District means chaos, even in normal times.
Cepko recently became the volunteer commissioner for the Stoddert girls under-9 division, a job that entails creating team rosters and playing schedules, organizing coaches meetings, picking up and distributing uniforms and balls, and the other behind-the-scenes tasks it takes to maintain the league. She agreed to the post because her 8-year-old daughter, Emily, is a Stoddert player; her husband, Gary Hallewell, who’s British, is Emily’s coach. On the Friday night before the opening weekend of the season, Cepko got some bad news: All of the games in her division, which were supposed to be played the next day at Hardy, had been canceled due to the weather. Cepko was incredulous: It hadn’t rained since Thursday.
Still, she wasn’t entirely surprised, because she knew that the residents of the Foxhall neighborhood had been pressuring the DCPR to limit Stoddert’s access to the field. Cepko told her husband and the division’s 13 other coaches about the cancellation but warned them that the games might be reinstated, because the league was working to reverse the decision.
By 10:30 the next morning, after a flurry of complaints, DCPR Director Neil Albert had decided that his department had erred, and Cepko was told that the games could go on. It was too late for the coaches to line the field or set up proper goals, but they improvised, using cones to delineate a rough playing area for the kids.
“It’s a bunch of little 8-year-old girls,” says Cepko. “They probably didn’t even notice that we didn’t have a proper field. They just wanted to play soccer.”
When the neighbors don’t squawk, wet fields are much less of a problem. After Hurricane Isabel hit on a Thursday, the DCPR found a way to open the fields over the weekend. On Friday at noon, Gross called a DCPR official, Michael Williams, to plead for the opening of just a few fields. The two met at Fort Stevens a few hours later to survey the damage the storm had caused. Isabel had not dropped a tremendous amount of rain, and the fields were firm; to Gross’ surprise, Williams said his agency would open all of its facilities, except for the field at Hearst. A few hours later, he even agreed to open that one. Gross was ecstatic, and for a few brief moments, all of the squabbling that had gone on over the past few years between the league and the department evaporated into the afternoon air.
Unfortunately, the harmony would be short-lived: After completing their festivities this past Saturday, the organizers of the community event Fort Stevens Day failed to have a portable stage removed from the Fort Stevens field. The DCPR knew that the stage had yet to be moved, and knew that soccer games were scheduled to be played on Sunday, but it did not call Stoddert officials or get the stage off the field. When the referees showed up for the day’s games, they had no choice but to turn the players away.
On a cloudless, early fall day at Fessenden Field, nestled in among the leafy streets around Fort Reno Park, the 7-year-old Lowell Leopards are in a hole, having gone down 3-0 in their first game of the season.
Still, their fans don’t seem too concerned. Most of them, parents who occupy folding chairs around the outside of the field, have either fallen half-asleep behind their sunglasses or become too immersed in conversation to give much thought to the team’s chances for a comeback. The referee, a volunteering parent in jeans and an Indiana Jones-style hat, is spending most of his time shouting encouragement: “Nice kick, Kyra,” he yells toward the kids, who run up and down the short field in a tight little cluster.
The Leopards’ goalie, positioned in front of a makeshift goal consisting of a few small, skinny metal rods and a shock of orange mesh, seems to have forgotten that he can use his hands to stop the ball; instead, he’s kicking it as hard as he can whenever he gets the opportunitya tactic that seems to give him great satisfaction. On the sideline, a group of parents is busy trying to figure out if anyone has remembered to bring snacks for after the game.
Orange wedges and soft drinks: Those are the sorts of problems that Stoddert parents relish. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.