Long Beach Poly Vets Stadium

HOME AWAY. A packed crowd gathers at Veterans Stadium to watch Long Beach Poly play football.

These are dangerous days for sports in the Long Beach Unified School District — teetering, on-the-brink-of-collapse days for a once-proud athletic program that could legitimately boast it was the best in the nation.

What follows is the author’s opinion on what has happened so far and what may be to come. Several requests for comment to school board member Jon Meyer were met with no response; Meyer is the district’s de facto point person on sports because of his history as a player and coach.

What’s Happening?

Every May for the last few years, I have received text messages from coaches, teachers, and administrators: “What now?”

As in, what’s the next piece of bad news coming for high school sports in Long Beach? The cuts started coming during the Great Recession. Unlike other besieged parts of the district, they haven’t stopped.

First, the district switched to a bell schedule that reduced practice time and took away coaching periods. Then, dozens of coaches were pink-slipped during district-wide layoffs, bringing an end to a century-old tradition of on-campus teacher/coaches and ushering in an era of walk-ons, coaches who are asked to work a full-time job with LBUSD youth for a stipend of between $3,140 and $5,234 a year.

When the district passed a $1.1 billion construction bond measure in 2008, it only upgraded sports facilities at one local high school, putting a new pool in at Cabrillo — and nothing else. Last week, the district voted to put a $1.5 billion bond measure on the November ballot, once again making no mention of athletic facilities upgrades at the school board meeting.

Consider that every single school district that borders the LBUSD has either turf fields or all-weather track facilities for their high school athletes and PE students. The LBUSD has neither at any of their high schools, despite having the two most successful prep sports programs in Southern California history in Poly and Wilson.

Then came what may prove the death blow. Last year, the LBUSD board passed the most restrictive athletic rule in the state of California, requiring that athletes who transfer within district schools sit out for a year. The regulation has already begun to divert more and more Long Beach talent to St. Anthony and St. John Bosco. One coach at Bosco laughed when he heard the rule and told me, “That’s the best news I’ve ever gotten.” The football enrollment at both schools has hit record levels.

The hits keep coming — the district already has built one new high school with no sports program, and is soon to open another two. They refused to hear a plan from the Moore League to redefine the athletic director position, choosing to retain a verbiage and philosophy that was put in place in the 1970s.

Now I hear from Wilson, Poly, Millikan and Lakewood that students aren’t being admitted to their schools of choice. Promising athletes have instead been sent to schools that don’t offer the sports they play, or even to McBride High, which has no sports programs at all.

So What?

It’s obvious — at least to constant observers — that the LBUSD no longer cares about or supports its sports programs, at least at the highest levels of administration.

Any sportswriter who covers teams in Downey and Compton or La Mirada will tell you that covering even regular season games will put you in front of school board members and district higher-ups who are there to support their teams and schools. At one Compton basketball game this year, the Compton Unified vice president was in attendance, as well as two school board members — that’s fairly common there.

I’ve covered LBUSD sports for eight years and have never once seen three senior staff members at a game or a championship. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen even one.

So, who cares? The school district has a right to pull support from sports programs. They had a right to cut yellow school buses out of the budget as well, and to shut down Camp Hi-Hill. It’s their job to determine what parts of Long Beach’s educational culture are worth funding and supporting and which ones aren’t.

There is, in my opinion, a reason to care about the loss of the district’s once-vibrant sports program, above and beyond all other losses. For one, the return on investment is unbelievable. The LBUSD averaged more than $30 million in athletic scholarships over the last five years. Poly students alone received $23 million in scholarships in 2015, and $17 million in 2014.

This year? The district is, by my count, down to just more than $15 million. Next year looks to be another drop to about $10 million. That’s $15-$20 million in scholarship money lost to Long Beach youth.

The number will continue to fall if the LBUSD sends talented water polo players to schools with no college connections in that sport, sends volleyball players to schools with no teams, and sends basketball and football players to play for coaches who don’t know college recruiters.

The LBUSD is all about getting kids to college and getting them scholarships — but by killing their sports program, they’re limiting those opportunities to a segment of the student population. Imagine if the district had a pilot math program that attracted thousands of participants, earned $30 million a year in scholarships, and garnered statewide acclaim and media coverage. Can you see them systematically dismantling that initiative the way they have their sports program? I can’t.

The National Federation of State High School Associations has published numerous studies that show that high school athletes get better grades, have better test scores, are more likely to get into college, and have better-developed social and emotional lives than their non-sports playing peers — not to mention more school pride and a greater sense of belonging. All of which is why any robust school district should be alarmed if its sports programs begin to wither.

What Does the Future Look Like?

Forfeits. Fights. Suspensions.

Those aren’t words I used to use often in articles. It used to be as a Long Beach sportswriter that you were a bearer of almost entirely good news — scholarships and championships were 90% of your workload. As the district removed on-campus coaches, that began to change.

This shouldn’t surprise the LBUSD. Legendary sports writer Bob Keisser and the city’s coaching community warned about the importance of on-campus coaches a decade ago. These sports teams are classes at the school, after all. The LBUSD wouldn’t let an English class be taught by a potentially unqualified person off the street for $4,500 a year, so why hire a coach who’s going to spend sometimes as many as six hours a day with 100 kids for that rate? Even if you do get a great walk-on coach (and every school has them), it’s hard to keep them — good walk-on coaches are driven off on an annual basis by the low pay and a lack of support from school or district administration.

Apparently, the problems the district has seen in its sports programs are going to continue. Their only attempt to address the forfeits and other issues seen recently was to pass the restrictive transfer rule — which is like trying to put out a fire by turning your back to it and humming a happy tune. My feeling — and the feeling of many coaches who’ve complained to me — is that because the problem is both complex and very visible, the district would rather just not have a sports program. Or have it be so de-emphasized that it’s not making headlines, either good or bad.

Every year I hear from a handful of parents who tell me that even though they themselves are LBUSD products, and their kids went to LBUSD schools K-8, they’re going private, or moving to another district for high school. This year, I heard that from more than a dozen parents of highly talented eighth graders. Why?

Consider: if you’re putting your ninth grader into a sports program, there’s now an overwhelming chance you won’t get to choose what high school they attend. Even if you do, there’s an overwhelming chance they’ll be playing for a walk-on coach, which means there’s an overwhelming chance the coach they started with won’t be the coach when the kid graduates. If the school hires a bad coach to replace them, the student is now stuck without being able to transfer schools — if they do, they have to sit out a year.

That’s not a risk many parents are willing to take. As a parent, I understand them.

Parents don’t have any confidence that when a coach they trust leaves, their coach’s replacement will be moral and competent. Until they see something in the district change — besides passing a transfer rule that, in effect, says all the problems are the fault of the kids — why would they expect change?

Former Lakewood football coach Thadd MacNeal lamented the state of the Lancers’ football team to me not long ago. After building Lakewood into a powerhouse that produced several Division 1 scholarship players every year as well as a great rivalry with Poly that was attended by 10,000-12,000 fans, MacNeal watched as Lakewood slipped away very quickly after he was pink-slipped.

“It makes me really sad,” he said. “It’s like an LA City Section program.”

That is a sad statement echoed by many coaches and parents — and will continue to be echoed until the LBUSD decides to make a change.

Of course, they’ve already shown how they feel about sports — they won’t actually change unless parents and coaches stop just complaining to us, and start making it clear to the LBUSD that they care about these issues.

Can it Be Fixed?

The good news is that nothing is broken — things have merely fallen into a state of disrepair. By upgrading facilities, by hiring on-campus teacher/coaches, by allowing athletes the same ability to move schools that musicians and journalism students have, the district can stop their quickly hastening slide.

Will they do it? I don’t know — it likely will depend on the amount of pressure exerted by parents and community stakeholders.

Two weeks ago, the University of Texas fired baseball coach Augie Garrido, the winningest coach in college history with 1,975 victories, including eight College World Series trips and two national titles in the last 20 years. It was the kind of confused, wrongheaded administrative move that’s become familiar to those who follow high school sports in Long Beach.

“If I’m not back, it’s because I couldn’t control the decision that was made,” Garrido told the Austin American-Statesman. “But trails end, baby. They all end.”

If the LBUSD’s leadership has indeed decided that the trail must end for its historic sports program, it’s their responsibility to tell the public, to stop eroding it piece by piece, tradition by tradition — and to have the integrity to either cut the program entirely, or announce that it’s no longer a priority, as it was for many decades during the district’s golden age.

There are hundreds of people in Long Beach breaking their backs to keep that program’s legacy intact right now — work that seems not only unappreciated but often opposed by the LBUSD. Athletes, coaches, parents, administrators — and yes, sportswriters — have a right to know if those efforts are in vain, and would be better spent elsewhere.

For 100 years that’s a question that would have been unthinkable. Today, it’s a question that must be asked — and must be answered.

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