The $3.5 million gym that opens at the Edgewood Recreation and Community Center next month could provide an ideal venue for a sport that proponents insist promotes fitness and wellbeing while instilling pride and a sense of accomplishment in participants.
Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, who represents the southern area of the county, wants to start a boxing program in the nearly 11,000-square-foot gym. The full basketball court, with bleachers, could make room for a portable boxing ring, he said.
Guthrie has lined up volunteer trainers and mentors, won the support of some community leaders and is assured of a strong interest among youth. All he needs is about $15,000 from the county to purchase the ring, gloves and other basic equipment.
"The idea is to get the aggression off the streets and into a controlled environment," Guthrie said. "Participants will learn discipline and physical fitness."
The Route 40 corridor, with its Edgewood and Joppa neighborhoods, has seen a marked increase in crime and youth gang activities in the past few years. Community activists and church leaders have searched for ways to involve youth in wholesome activities and educational programs.
Boxing could provide another outlet for children, Guthrie said.
Ed Stoecker, pastor of Community Connection Church in Edgewood, boxed in his youth and spoke in favor of the proposal to the County Council on Tuesday.
"I am living proof that kids carry the lessons learned in boxing for the rest of their lives," Stoecker said. "This is a sport that teaches discipline, honor and integrity as well as how to conduct yourself when you lose."
But Pastor Alfred Reeves, who runs athletic programs for nearly 600 middle-school-aged boys in the southern area, said he would rather promote team sports, particularly lacrosse, which could lead to college scholarships.
"Boxing is not the worst thing we could plan, but it is hard to stop a violent movement with another violent movement," Reeves said. "It won't change the environment. I have yet to see a boy get a scholarship for boxing, but Maryland is a hotbed for lacrosse and colleges notice."
With statewide test scores low in several southern area schools, Reeves said he would rather concentrate on academic pursuits. A $15,000 grant might pay for a bus that could carry 50 boys to Harford Community College this summer, where they could pursue enrichment classes along with sports.
"I respect Guthrie's efforts, but I want to win boys over, change their mind-sets and give them lessons that will carry them into college and a better life," Reeves said. "These boys already know how to use their fists. We need to teach them life skills and not reinforce the concept of fighting. There is enough of that already."
Other sports programs can accommodate greater numbers of players, he said. And he questioned the subtle message in pushing boxing in Edgewood.
If the grant becomes available, Reeves said he could purchase enough lacrosse equipment to start a rec program for 300 players. Boxing would be limited to about 50 participants.
"There are no boxing clubs in north Harford or Bel Air," Reeves said. "Why do they want to put one in Edgewood? Lacrosse can teach the same concepts."
It comes down to understanding the sport, said Frank Gilbert, vice president of the South Atlantic Association, which includes several boxing clubs in Maryland.
A lifelong proponent of the sport, Gilbert runs a youth program in Baltimore County. Certain the activity will give youth a chance to thrive under the aegis of experienced role models, he has offered to help Guthrie set up Edgewood's boxing.
"Everyone thinks boxing is a Neanderthal sport," Gilbert said. "Kids as young as 8 can learn how to score points by landing clean punches and how to follow the rules. This sport gives guidance to youngsters, helps them set goals and teaches them dedication."
Guthrie said he can find the money for starting and maintaining the program in what is a tight budget and will continue to press for it.
"The gym can double for basketball and boxing," he said. "Both will keep kids off the streets."