Funding fight leaves kids in the dark
As officials wrangle over financing city rec programs, athletes endure and play on
As the pint-sized players in mismatched uniforms ran their drills, darkness closed in on the football field in lower Park Heights.
The field had no lights, but the Northwest Bulldogs needed to practice. So, in a familiar ritual, the youth team’s coaches edged their cars onto the field and turned on their headlights.
“We’ve got a game Saturday whether we practice or not. It’s survival,” said Tyrone Johnson, a coach in the Bulldogs program. He’s also an administrator, fundraiser and confidant for many of the 100 5- to 13-year-old players in the program — even long after football season ends.
As Johnson prepared a team for its final game on Saturday, he hoped the mayor and City Council would resolve their differences over how to fund $60 million in recreation program improvements — including rec center upgrades and fields — that both sides agree are critically needed Northwest Bulldogs coach Tyrone Johnson says he’s spent about $10,000 of his own money over the past several years to keep the youth football program afloat. to provide kids with more coaching, mentoring and programmed activity.
The Baltimore area has as many as 50 youth football programs, each typically fielding five or more teams of about 25 players grouped by age. The programs often provide much more than football instruction. Many coaches routinely take players to movies or the barber shop, buy them cleats, read books with them, monitor their grades at school, or even see them off on prom night.
The Parkside Warriors, one of the city’s largest programs with 350 players, started book clubs this season for all of its 13 teams. When the weather was warm, the players sat on the grass discussing their books.
Now they convene inside a recreation center.
City football coaches like Johnson, a former Northwestern High School football player who is now a social services case manager, also frequently cope with worn equipment such as helmets and pads, and patchy practice fields with limited availability and no lights.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said he asked the Police Department to put up spotlights during the season so the Warriors could practice.
“We have to have better facilities,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get the council president and the mayor to come together around this.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young both have called for building new rec centers and adding lighted fields, but they disagree on the scope of the projects and the funding sources.
Young favors “super” recreation centers in East and West Baltimore, modeled on the 135,000-square-foot Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, Va., named for the former college basketball star and prominent youth sports advocate. The RawlingsBlake administration has argued that smaller neighborhood recreation centers are a better fit for Baltimore.
In 2015, Rawlings-Blake proposed spending $136 million for park, pool and rec center upgrades that included $20 million for four outdoor athletic centers.
The city says it currently operates eight fields that can be used for football. Only half of the fields have lights, and they also are used by soccer and lacrosse teams. That leaves many teams either sharing practice fields or without a place to play.
“We don’t have supply to meet demand,” said Rashaan Brave, the city’s division chief for youth and adult sports and special facilities.
The mayor’s plan includes selling four city-owned parking garages and using the resulting $60 million to fund a big chunk of her proposal. While some improvements have moved forward, the downtown garage sales have been blocked by Young.
The Off-Street Parking Commission, a panel of mayoral appointees, approved the garage plan this month, but Mayor-elect Catherine E. Pugh, who takes office Dec. 6, Northwest Bulldogs assistant coach Tony Mckiver adjusts a player’s gear. City rec programs often struggle to come up with the $250 it can cost to outfit a player. will make the final decision.
While Young agrees that the city owes it to players and volunteer coaches to provide better facilities, he contends that the garages are “money makers” for the city and shouldn’t be sold. He said money for better facilities could come from public-private partnerships and the city.
Johnson pointed out that the end of daylight saving time in the fall means that it gets dark between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. He said it’s “extremely important” that the issue be addressed.
“Hopefully there can be some positive resolution,” Johnson said. “We start practice at 6 o’clock, so we’re literally starting in the dark.”
Pugh has said that she would have her economic development team study the “feasibility” of selling the garages and that she won’t make a decision before a “careful evaluation of the economics.”
The Rawlings-Blake administration and City Council members cited the benefits of kids connecting with coaches as mentors as a reason teams deserve better resources — even if they are at odds over how to provide them.
“Most of the coaches teach these kids like their own kids. What they do is very, very important,” Young said.
“Football really saved me, giving me structure and male figures to look up to,” said Tony Mckiver, 27, who coaches the Bulldogs’ 8-year-olds. Mckiver was a Bulldogs player beginning at age 5, and Johnson was among his coaches. “It was that coach saying, ‘I want to see your report card.’ ”
Joe “Ya Ya” Myers counts his team among the fortunate few. He is an assistant coach for the 9- to 11-year-olds of the Charm City Buccaneers, a West Baltimore program that draws players from around the city to Leon Day Field, which has lights.
“When it gets late in the season and the playoffs start, we’ll have a few teams that need to come down to use our field,” Myers said.
“Sometimes the city kids get slighted” because of a lack of resources relative to other parts of the state, Myers said. “All we can do is what we can.”
The value of the Buccaneers program extends well beyond the sport, said Dawn Scott, the mother of two former players.
Troy and Travon Hollis, both linebackers on football scholarships at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, recently recalled how Myers accompanied the brothers on college visits, greeted them before their prom and attended their high school graduation.
“Once you play for this man, he will always stick with you,” Travon Hollis said. “If things are going wrong, you call him and talk to him about any situation.”
Many big area programs are nonprofit organizations affiliated with American Youth Football, Pop Warner or other leagues that hold regional and national tournaments. Other teams are sponsored by rec councils or rec centers.
USA Football, a governing body for the amateur game, has provided grants — $1,000 in one year, $500 in another — to help the Bulldogs pay for equipment. Other Bulldogs sponsors have included the Abell Foundation and Park Heights Renaissance, a community improvement group.
Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks also provides subsidies to each of the 19 city-based youth football programs for referees’ fees.
The help is welcome, but it’s rarely enough. A team’s annual expenses can total thousands of dollars — sometimes tens of thousands. Teams spend up to $250 to outfit a player in a uniform, helmet and pads.
Johnson estimates he’s spent “upwards of $10,000 out my own pocket for the past10 to 15 years” to cover the program’s costs.
Youth football programs also rely on player registration fees. Johnson said Bulldogs parents were asked this season to pay a $55 registration fee — if they could afford it.
“We’re not going to turn any kids away,” Johnson said.
By comparison, the Towson recreation council’s youth football program, the Spartans, charges participants a fee of $180, plus up to $75 for uniforms. They also practice on a lighted grass field, often alongside other teams, and play games on an artificial turf field at Meadowood Regional Park in Lutherville-Timonium.
On a recent night, the Bulldogs convened at one of the fields with lights, adjacent to the C.C. Jackson Recreation Center on Park Heights Avenue. It turned out the field was being used for a game, so the players — in hand-me-down jerseys and helmets that didn’t always match their teammates’ — practiced on a thin patch of worn grass nearby.
As the sun went down, they continued to work on formations and pass patterns, though the lights didn’t extend quite far enough for them to be able to see the ball.