It was never really about sports. It was never about the relative value of academics versus sports. It was not about No Child Left Behind, a.k.a., No Child in Shape.
No, the challenge facing Mount Vernon, N.Y. a predominantly black suburb in tony Westchester County, was always about Community.
How we define Community, more specifically.
Is it simply a neighborhood? Is it an entire city? Is it only those who look alike and share a common cultural background? Or is it more?
Earlier this year, cash-strapped by debts from a prior administration, the city’s voters twice rejected a city budget until officials were forced to make significant cuts, including $1.1 million needed to fund the city’s prodigious athletic program.
Indeed, like most urban municipalities, sports is intricately intertwined with the city’s educational goals – to an extreme, some argue. Indeed, Mount Vernon – just down the road from where I live in New Rochele, N.Y. – is more widely known for its powerful athletic teams than for its intellectually powerful students. It’s football and basketball teams are perennial state championship contenders, and the prospect of losing them – along with the other sports teams at the high- and middle-schools – was greeted with little short of alarm. Not a criticism; just a fact.
Some critics say the reaction was extreme, that the same hue and cry was not generated for other losses, classroom losses. And it almost became a debate about which was more important – academics or sports. Or a referendum about our culture’s over-emphasis on sports.
Thankfully, it didn’t. Sure, we overemphasize sports as the primary/only hope for less-privileged to achieve success (i.e., get rich). So much so that too often they neglect the classroom on the false hope they they’ll be The One who reaches the promised land known as pro sports.
But there’s no doubting the value of sports participation as an integral part of any well-rounded education. From lessons learned from the experience of being a good teammate or on-field leader to the pure health benefits, playing sports, to me, is as vital as any lessons learned in the classroom.
No doubt, too, that the national trends towards obesity in our youth, as well as the growth in gangs and violence among our youth, can be traced in part to the diminishing sports programs in cash-strapped schools around the nation. That is my strong belief.
Mount Vernon established a deadline of last Sunday for raising at least $300,000 in order to save the fall sports programs, giving them just about a month to do so. Almost immediately, students clad in MV’s familiar maroon were gathering around the county soliciting donations, washing cars, backing stuff, almost whatever it took.
As of last Friday they were still short, despite hefty contributions from MV alum (and current Chicago Bull) Ben Gordon and another well-known alum, Denzel Washington, who contributed $100,000. “It did not take a lot of arm twisting,” MV mayor Clinton Young told The New York Times, regarding his conversation with the Academy Award-winning actor. “In fact, he contacted me and said, ‘What can I do?'”
Community. You never leave it.
Community. It is more than geographic boundaries – as is demonstrated by what happened next.
Contributions from miles away arrived, according to reports in the Times. A nine-year-old boy from Rye, an upper-class, predominately white suburb a few miles away, sent his $30 allowance. Another boy from another predominantly white city nearby sent $2,500 from his bar mitzvah. (He said he wanted the MV students to have the same opportunities he did.) A law firm in White Plains, the seat county government in Westchester, sent $1,000 and offered potential part-time and summer employment.
Ultimately, $279,000 was raised, but the decision was made to restore the programs. “The $300,000 has not been raised, but the district is still moving forward with the donations we have received,” said school district spokeswoman Desiree Grand.
The Community beat the deadline. Along with last-minute donations, the officials wrangled enough from the budget to fund a middle-school intramural program.
Winter and spring sports is still uncertain – another $600,000 will be needed to re-ignite those teams, including $300,000 by mid-October.
Somehow, I believe the Community will once again show us that it is bigger – and more generous – than we often believe.