Swimming teams left barely afloat by city system's latest sports foul-up

On High Schools

December 04, 2005|By MILTON KENT

A swimming coach in one of the city's public high schools said last week that the school system would never have allowed 15 city football fields or 15 basketball courts to become unusable, as it has with the 15 indoor pools at city high schools.

The implication, of course, was that football and basketball have most favored nation status among the sports offered by the school system.

But, truth be told, recent history suggests that when it comes to screwing up athletic opportunities for kids, it spreads its mistakes across the board evenly and equally, so that students and prospective athletes all over town and in all the sports are colossally inconvenienced.

If, say, two or three of the 15 high school indoor swimming pools in the city were out of order, then you could chalk it up to misfortune. If, for instance, half the pools were out of commission, well, then you would wonder how things got to that state.

But what does it say about a school system when all 15 of those pools are closed less than a week before the first swim meets are scheduled to take place?

It says the same thing that has been said, seemingly, for years on end: that there is a fundamental disconnect between how athletics are governed in Baltimore City and the kids and coaches themselves.

How else to explain the constant drumbeat of negative stories about one thing or another that goes wrong in the city concerning sports? Even as the kids themselves are succeeding, usually against the odds, someone older, and presumably wiser, is letting them down.

The revelation the other day that all of the city's indoor pools are unusable on the verge of the swimming season is just the latest in a series of foul-ups that has dogged the athletic department in recent years.

To wit:

Mervo's football team was forced to play four years' worth of road games because the city squabbled with a contractor over stadium construction, then kept the field closed while the battle raged in court.

In February 2004, The Sun reported that basketball games, wrestling matches and swim meets were postponed because there weren't enough buses designated to transport athletes, in part because the school system was slow to pay some bus contractors. Some basketball referees and coaches were paid late, if at all.

One week before this year's state football playoffs, Douglass was forced to forfeit its 9-1 season, as well as its Division II title and a state playoff berth, when it was reported that it had been using an ineligible player. School officials maintain the player in question was eligible but have declined to comment further.

The foibles of the city's school system have long been documented in these pages and in other media outlets, and to ask it to focus on fixing extracurricular activities when it has so many problems just making sure that kids learn during the regular school day seems like folly.

And, the upkeep of a swimming pool is considerably trickier and more expensive than that of a football field or a basketball court. There are tests to be done, chemicals to be applied and then some, as anyone who has a backyard pool will attest.

But, according to coaches and athletic directors, some of the problems at the pools are the result of long-term indifference, up to and including cracks and leaks that were reported to school headquarters at North Avenue, but never repaired.

On the face of it, swimming may seem to be nonessential, but there are positives that flow from the pool. For one, many competitive swimmers make effective lifeguards at some of the area pools. In addition, closed pools in city schools mean African-Americans, historically among the most reluctant groups to learn to swim, have fewer opportunities to do so.

The school system bears a substantial amount of blame for the swimming fiasco, and for other foul-ups, but not all.

The rest of the responsibility falls on politicians and the citizenry for not holding system employees accountable for this kind of breakdown.

Too many parents display an active, if not understandable, indifference toward their kids' education. In their minds, merely getting them out the door and onto the bus for school is a victory. Anything else, given the pressures of their own lives, is gravy.

There's a fear among some coaches that the system is allowing the swimming program to die a death of a thousand cuts, that if they're not back in the pool this year, the program will go away and never be seen again, just as the junior varsity baseball and track programs went away.

Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer, is on the record as saying that six pools - the minimum necessary to have a season - will be open in time to have a season. He and his boss, Bonnie Copeland, should be held to that pledge, as well as one that all 15 pools will be repaired in a timely fashion. The beleaguered schoolchildren of Baltimore City deserve no less.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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