They Got Game But Need a League

Given the cold shoulder by other basketball leagues, city middle schools try to go it alone

The kids have questions, but the coach doesn't have answers. For two years in a row, Jeff Cohen's teams at McKinley Classical Junior Academy were allowed to compete in outside leagues. Each year, they played well. And each year, they were told not to come back.

Cohen still isn't sure he knows why. His kids certainly don't.

"It's about them," says Cohen. "I have questions that I can't seem to get answers to for a bunch of nice 12-year-old kids. That question basically is, why can't they play?"

The Cougars from McKinley Classical Junior Academy, a city public school, are playing in Affton this year after being told not to return to leagues where they played the last two years, in Clayton and in the CYC's South City district.
D.J. Wilson
The Cougars from McKinley Classical Junior Academy, a city public school, are playing in Affton this year after being told not to return to leagues where they played the last two years, in Clayton and in the CYC's South City district.

For Cohen and other middle-school coaches in the city's financially strapped public-school system, finding a place to play has been a preoccupation. Until last month, there was no league for schools like McKinley, nothing like the Catholic Youth Council (CYC) leagues for city and suburban parochial schools, or the leagues run by Boys Clubs, or suburban municipal recreation leagues.

Two years ago, several teams from McKinley were allowed to play in the CYC league but were told they couldn't participate in the playoffs. And then last year, the CYC voted against letting public schools back in the league, though they continued to include other non-Catholic teams like Tower Grove Baptist and secular schools such as New City School and Institute for the Deaf. At the end of 1998, the Clayton Parks and Recreation League was the next stop for McKinley's 12-year-olds, but that proved to be just a one-year layover. For this basketball season, McKinley was told by Clayton it couldn't return to play in that league.

Of course, reasons were given for these exclusions. In the case of the CYC, McKinley was told there wasn't enough gym space available in its South City District leagues but that the team might be able to play in the north district. That posed transportation problems for McKinley. In Clayton's case, McKinley was told its players were just too good for the competition and they'd have to play elsewhere.

From the CYC's perspective, public-school kids can play, just not under the names of their public schools. The brief experiment in which a few public-school teams were let in ended amid concerns over a lack of control of the teams. "We find it much easier for us, if we have a problem with a parish, to go back to a pastor and say, "We're having a problem with this team, this coach,' and they deal with it in their own organization," says Paul Scovill, CYC sports director. "That's been the basis of our whole program all along."

Scovill is not saying the McKinley teams were a problem; it was more that coaches in the South City district of CYC saw them as a potential problem. "Some of the people in the leadership of South City viewed it as a problem, dealing with an "outside group,' if you want to call a public school that," says Scovill.

Of course, there are racial aspects to letting a public school play in a parochial league. Enrollment in city public schools is 85 percent African-American. Cohen's current team, which eventually found a place to play in an Affton league, has eight black players and four whites. Though there are North Side Catholic parishes and CYC teams that are predominantly African-American, the South City CYC district that McKinley had played in was largely Caucasian. Even the perception that the CYC had a problem with a black team is standing history on its head: Cardinal Joseph Ritter launched the Catholic league back in the late 1940s after the city municipal leagues banned certain parishes whose teams included black players. In the case of McKinley's team, Scovill reiterates that the worry was about control, not pigmentation.

"Our program was developed and designed all along to be a Catholic-parish organization," says Scovill. "In the last two or three years or so it's opened up to other religious denominations. I guess the desire is not there to have "public schools or outside groups.' There is a place for kids to play. If they are in a Catholic parish, then they're eligible to play for that team, whether they're Catholic or not. So the black-white issue as far as the players being involved is not an issue at all."

At least one CYC coach, though not familiar with the McKinley situation, says some coaches would have welcomed a public-school team in the league, though other coaches wouldn't. "We'd like to have the competition. We get tired of playing the same schools," he says. "But for some coaches, when they see a bunch of black kids playing basketball, that's scary."

Some of those coaches privately said they worried that public schools would recruit "ringers" outside their schools and the CYC teams wouldn't have any enforcement powers to prevent those players from playing. In the case of McKinley, a magnet school for what the district calls "gifted" students, the odds of that happening might have been diminished. But it might be that the CYC thought that once a few public schools were admitted, others would follow and the league might be overwhelmed. With those concerns, real or imagined, it's not surprising that McKinley was not allowed to return.

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