On September 11 the soccer teams from Roosevelt and Amundsen high schools faced off in a rematch of last year's Public League championship. They wore last year's uniforms and played on a muddy field without bleachers, bands, or cheerleaders, while a couple of cops periodically warned both coaches and the referees to move their cars from nearby Foster Avenue lest they be towed.
When the game was over (Roosevelt won, as they did last year) the opposing players shook hands and walked home--there were no team buses to drive them, no nearby locker rooms in which to shower and change.
That's the way it is with soccer in the city's schools. Despite the rising enrollment of immigrant and first-generation Hispanics, Arabs, and Eastern Europeans who grew up loving the game, soccer is the last priority in a system starving for cash.
"I hate to complain too much about soccer because, well, let's face it, when you don't have enough money to pay your teachers, you aren't going to have a lot of money left over for sports," says Manny Weincord, who coaches the soccer and basketball teams at Roosevelt High School, 3436 W. Wilson. "Still, I don't think the system realizes the importance of soccer."
That's putting it mildly--at least a lot more mildly than soccer referee Kenneth Newman puts it. As he sees it, organized soccer is to low-income Hispanic kids what basketball is to poor black kids: a reason to stay in school.
"It's a tragedy, especially for the Hispanic kids," says Newman, who referees high school and semiprofessional soccer games. "They love soccer; it's their favorite game. They should be playing for their school. It gives kids something to do; it keeps them out of gangs and off of drugs. The coach may be like a second father to a kid who doesn't have a father. If the kids are good, they can get college scholarships. Or it just may be what a marginal student needs to stay in school."
As of now, there are few rewards for playing soccer in the public schools. There are no girls' teams--a violation of federal antidiscrimination laws, Newman says--nor are there freshman or sophomore teams; all students, no matter how young or small, must try out for the varsity squads. If they don't make the team, tough luck. If they do, they'll play for a coach who makes less money and gets less respect than his counterparts in football or basketball.
"We coach soccer as a labor of love," says Weincord. "It's certainly not for the money or recognition. When I took the job, I didn't know the first thing about soccer. I grew up on basketball, football, and baseball. But our school was changing; we had a lot of Hispanic and Assyrian kids. They said, 'Mr. Weincord, all we have are American sports.' And that didn't make any sense."
Weincord and other coaches would appreciate more financial support for their programs from the central office, but it won't happen soon. The Board of Education and General Superintendent Ted Kimbrough only recently sliced a $300 million budget deficit by canceling a promised teachers' raise (an act that still might precipitate a strike) and cutting about $30 million in services. Teachers have been going without paper and pencils and many schools are losing their teachers to layoffs or transfers. Each high school's annual sports budget was cut from $6,700 to $750. Suddenly schools couldn't afford new equipment. Coaches complained about the dangers of playing football in old pads and helmets, but central-office leaders said there was nothing they could do.
"Sports programs are not being singled out for cuts," says a central-office spokeswoman. "But the learning that takes place in a classroom between teacher and student is sacrosanct and is our utmost priority. The fiscal reality sometimes precludes other extracurricular programs."
The cutbacks were particularly devastating for soccer, since the sport is already underfunded, says Newman. "A lot of people might think there are no expenses to a soccer program, but that just shows their ignorance," says Newman. "Just sticking with the basics, you need shin guards--they're mandated by the Illinois High School Association--and good ones will cost you $15 a pop. A good leather ball costs at least $30, and you should have at least 20 balls so that every kid can do individual juggling. And then there's things like a medical kit, uniforms, and shoes." As it is, most soccer coaches say they're lucky if they can buy ten balls a year.
"You try to make your soccer balls last for two years," says Weincord. "Our playing field is near the Chicago River, so it's not unusual to have a ball go into the water. I've seen situations where kids run off to retrieve a ball and the next thing you hear is them yelling, 'Help, I'm stuck in the water.' We also have a problem with balls going out into the street. You can save up to buy a real nice $70 ball, then in two seconds it's flattened."
Most coaches try to offset expenses with pop-machine revenue, candy sales, and other fund-raisers. If they can't afford to rent a bus, they drive their players to and from games or have the kids take public transportation.
"I used to pile as many as 12 students into my car; I broke a van and a station wagon that way," says Napoleon Daminedes, the soccer coach at Kenwood Academy. "I don't do that anymore; it's too dangerous. We also used to rent a school bus and charge the players $2 to pay for it. But what are you going to do if you're playing Morgan Park, which is on the southwest side, or at Washington High School, which is almost in Indiana? The buses don't want to travel that far."
Daminedes's team is a bit unusual in that it includes girls. "I ask all interested girls to come out and join the team because it's a great game for them to play," says Daminedes. "They have teams for girls in the suburbs; why shouldn't city girls get their chance? At one point in the 80s we had about eight girls on the team. But now we're down to one; it's kind of lonely for her."
To compensate for the absence of junior varsity or freshman-sophomore squads, Daminedes offers a roster spot to anyone who tries out.
"Sports should be open to all," he says. "If someone has enough initiative to try out, he or she should make the team. I used to attract between 45 and 50 students. We didn't have enough uniforms, so we wore our regular gym shorts. I feel bad because it's hard to get all the kids into the game. But at least they're on the team."
And at least there's a team to join. Lake View High School, a north-side school with a high percentage of Hispanic students, had to let its team die for lack of funds.
"We had to make a choice--football or soccer--and we chose football," says Cappy Ricks, a member of the local school council at Lake View. "You could argue that given our high percentage of Hispanic kids we made the wrong choice. But we shouldn't have to choose in the first place.
"There's no question that the kids would respond to soccer here. But you can't argue for soccer when you don't have enough money to buy paper. Right now we have teachers paying out of their own pocket to buy paper for the Xerox machines. I suppose we should be thankful that we have a Xerox machine. Some schools are still using the old-fashioned ditto machines, assuming that they can get the parts to fix them when they're broken."
Money for copy machines is certainly not wasted on soccer coaches. The board pays coaches a rate of no more than $9.66 an hour and sets a cap for the maximum amount of hours a year they can work. "They'll credit you for 240 hours for basketball or football but only 80 hours for soccer," says Weincord. "They don't explain it, that's just the way it is."
Not surprisingly, many schools have trouble attracting coaches and even keeping the ones they've got. In recent years, according to Newman, the head coaches at Schurz and Clemente high schools bolted for coaching positions at suburban schools.
"I can't blame them for leaving," says Newman. "Those districts really understand the importance of a good sports program. They have frosh-soph teams, girls' teams, and the best equipment money can buy. They also get paid more; some of them make $4,500 [a year]."
Coaches who remain at city schools rarely receive much appreciation for their efforts. The former soccer coach at Kelly High School, for example, was unceremoniously transferred this fall to Calumet High School, which has no soccer team. Kelly, which has a large Hispanic enrollment, lost valuable weeks of practice before finding a replacement.
"The transfer didn't have anything to do with soccer," says Newman. "Teachers get bumped around the system all the time for a lot of different reasons. No one gives a damn about the consequences of these transfers. It's all done by seniority or union rules. In this case, here's a guy who put his special skills to use, and they're wasting him. It doesn't make sense.
"We have the talent, we have the kids who are willing to play. But it's just like every other thing in the schools--there's not enough money. Well, how many more generations of kids are we going to write off before we realize that these lives are too important to waste?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.