February 17, 2009
Dear Mr. Obama: Help our kids play Part II by Tom Farrey
Koach Karl hopes you'll enjoy this letter to President Obama from Tom Farrey.
Your turn, No. 44.
I know you have a lot on your plate, between fixing the economy and smoking out bin Laden. But you've got a big brain, so let me introduce you to another mounting crisis that will require your leadership to solve: That of our sport system at its base. Maybe as you're trying to modernize our schools and mend our health care system, you can think about building in reforms to the opportunities our children have for physical activity.
From the top down, the system looks pretty good. Our pro leagues are thriving, as are the owners of their franchises. Our athletes are worldwide brands — Kobe; A-Rod; Peyton Manning; the Williams sisters; and, especially, Tiger. From the window of an airplane, our mega-stadiums sparkle like 10-carat diamonds amid urban and college-town landscapes.
But viewed from the bottom up, the setup looks a lot more like the Wall Street we have come to know of late: a system compromised by greed and ignorance, in which the haves increasingly get rewarded at the expense of the have-nots, with the support of government.
Dwight Eisenhower, shown here with Arnold Palmer in 1960, recognized the need for a new emphasis on physical fitness. To understand where the priorities lie today, start in America's largest burg. Last week, officials for the city and the New York Yankees were hauled before a state assembly committee to justify the most expensive stadium project in U.S. history. The $1.5 billion ballpark is being built on one of those historic playgrounds built a century ago, Macombs Dam Park, whose fields over the years have served countless youth and school teams in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the U.S. The city effectively gave a 22-acre parcel to the richest team in baseball, and then allegedly jacked up the estimated value of the land to gain access to $940 million in federal tax-exempt bonds. Now the Yankees have been granted another $370 million in such bonds — just weeks after signing Mark Teixeira and two other free agents for a combined $423 million.
The city promises to build a series of smaller replacement parks elsewhere. But some won't be ready for years, one will be on top of a parking garage, and another is in an industrial area far from the neighborhood. And we'll see what residents really get once the economy wreaks full havoc on city budgets.
"In New York City, 70 percent of kids are kicked to the curb at the end of the school day," said Al Bevilacqua, a wrestling coach whose nonprofit organization, Beat the Streets, is trying to reintroduce that sport to public schools using private funding. In the city that pioneered the uniquely American tradition of school sports, the options for many students are very limited. As an undergraduate at Columbia, you lived in New York long enough to get a sense of the experiential gap between that of a large public high school there and an elite private school such as the one you attended in Honolulu. Well, it's grown. Intramurals and quality P.E. classes are scarce, and only so many kids can make varsity basketball. Do you know how many U.S. Olympians the Big Apple sent to Beijing? Just eight. Four fencers, one boxer, one judoka, one riflewoman and one table tennis player originally trained in China.
Australia, which draws from a population only some two and a half times the size of New York City, won 46 medals. Just about everywhere in America, inner-city kids struggle to find athletic opportunities.
Check back next week for the continuation of this letter to President Obama.