Temple University, self proclaimed as “Philadelphia’s Public University”, announced they were cutting funding entirely for a third of their varsity sports. You can read the resulting protests by students and promises by the Board. I don’t have a particular stake here – I didn’t go to Temple, I don’t know any of the athletes. I don’t particularly trust the Board of Trustees’ emphatic and repeated protestations that this has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with the gargantuan football team.
But what I’ve read in the conversation shows a shocking lack of understanding regarding the role of sports in the lives of young people.
When I started teaching in Philadelphia, I expected the stereotypical “Ball is Life” attitude: Not sports before school, but sports instead of school. People playing sports as a means of living instead of a complement to what life offers.
Reality, of course, is nuanced. Most serious athletes understand that their GPA can kill their opportunity and are, at minimum, begrudgingly compliant. I have seen some sad stories – I met with parents of a Senior who, having been out of his life for some time, were appalled to hear that his post-graduation plan was walking on to the football team at top ranked Michigan State or Notre Dame. The young man had never played organized football. 1
Robeson, however, is dominated by one of the sports Temple plans to cut, our track team. We have an awesome track team. Students transfer with the specific intent of working with out team; our basketball stars run in the off-season to stay in shape. We have banners in our gym.
Track is totally different from mainstream sports. Football and basketball have mind-blowing dunks or skull-shattering tackles – track highlights mostly involve people running around a circle, again and again. The track season itself is funky, with lots of races that sort-of mean something until a big race that means everything. It’s NASCAR without the exhilarating possibility of witnessing an
awesome ugly, flaming catastrophe.
Anyway, the point is2 that many students in our city are involved in sports that have less glamor than poker. There’s no pro-league, mostly partial scholarships, and a whole lot of hard work. My track guys aren’t due for money or fame; this isn’t the nonsense “kids from the inner city work harder because they have nothing else” story.
Temple University’s cuts affect those students the most. This article talks about the Temple Gymnastics team, and it really moved me. The atheletes, most of them paying their own way, center their life around a sport with no financial benefit. This isn’t about dreams of being on the Wheaties box. For the Temple students and the Husky Track team, athletics are the pivot that holds their life together.
Track meets are held on weekends, so the kids have something to do. Coaches become positive role models. Alumni stop by to practice and talk about college life. My students feel tremendous pressure to hang out “in the streets”, or risk being labeled a coward. But 3 hours of practice gives them a reason their peers will accept. My students are not exaggerating when they say “Track is life” because sports have literally pushed them into a place where they are more likely to be alive.
I grew up in Lower Merion3. For most of us, sports were a pleasant distraction, a social circle, or a resume builder4. I quit soccer after my Freshman year because I could – I had a strong family and a world class school5. I could, gasp, just hang out around my neighborhood with my friends without worrying about drugs or violence.
I worry this decision and the ensuing discussion is rooted in the same privilege from where I grew up, from people who think changing sports is akin to changing your cell phone provider. Temple assures their students that their scholarships will be maintained, that they can continue on with their academic life. Only 4 of the 19 gymnasts receive a scholarship. The athletes are almost certainly spending a fortune on travel and equipment, but they carry on because, like my kids, sports are not a thing, they are the thing that has brought positive outcomes to their life.
Here’s a Temple gymnast:
When asked what he loved most about gymnastics, he replied: “To be honest, the relationships. The people who get you where you are. My teammates past and present. My coaches are like father figures. Everyone pushes each other really hard.”
Temple might argue that this virtue, meaningful interaction with positive adults, can be found elsewhere on campus. Considering their Board of Trustees gave no notice, allowed no public input, and announced their decision 10 days before Finals, I remain skeptical.
The School Reform Commission in Philadelphia voted to axe all athletics in 2013 before the Governor found some change in between the seats of his state-sponsored car service to fund it. Again, the discussion centered around sports as something outside of school when, in reality, my students interweave their school life and athletic life. If our leaders can’t understand that, they shouldn’t be leading.
Good luck to the Temple Athletes and Administration. We feel you.