The Public High League once dominated the local gridiron scene, and suburban districts were perennial doormats. Now it's the other way around. Ever wonder why?

Ice says it's obvious that the desegregation plan has devastated the PHL. But, he adds, there's also no question that many students -- and not just athletes -- benefit from the county schools. "It's good for the kid, but it's bad for the school they left," Ice says. "You can't know where to add up the trade-off."

Sorrell Harvey says he doesn't know the names of all the players in the county who live in his school's district. But the summer camps he attends every year are full of players who leave the Roosevelt district for greener pastures. "There's quite a few," Harvey says. "I'm amazed at the number that live in this community and go to Mehlville and Kirkwood."

Sitting in his cramped office before practice during the first week of the season, Harvey insists that the superiority of county schools -- in test scores, class size and technology, as well as opportunities for football -- is overstated. He points to the star of the Rough Riders, six-foot-two, 320-pound Freddy Ball. Ball, a senior, only started playing football two years ago when an assistant coach noticed him in the hallways. He's ahead of pace to graduate in the spring and spends half his days as a teaching assistant. He says he never considered going to the county. "Never," Ball says. "I like the public schools here. I've known most of my friends here from ninth grade on up."

Mark Gilliland
Darrell Jackson (left), the area's top-rated prospect, lives in St. Louis but attends Webster Groves High, where he's coached by Cliff Ice
Mark Gilliland
Darrell Jackson (left), the area's top-rated prospect, lives in St. Louis but attends Webster Groves High, where he's coached by Cliff Ice

Ball's size alone would allow him to dominate most city offensive linemen, and Harvey -- a former assistant coach at Kansas State University -- has refined his prodigy into a topnotch defensive lineman with a rudimentary but solid technique. Even though Harvey prefers to limit his players to one side of the ball to reduce the chance of injury, his small roster forces him to start Ball on both sides. On defense, Ball is ranked ninth in the PHL this year, with eighteen solo tackles and nine assists; he has scholarship offers from Illinois and Illinois State.

Harvey insists that Ball's scholarship offers are evidence that city players can do as well in the city as they can in the county. "Just because they go out there doesn't mean they're taken care of," he says.

Earl Austin, a sportswriter for the St. Louis American who has followed prep sports here for nearly twenty years, agrees. "A top player can get attention regardless of what school he attends," Austin says. "Look at Vashon -- William Franklin is one of the top players in the state. He could play anywhere. Colleges know who he is. If there are people out there on the job, they'll find you wherever you are."

Race is almost never explicitly mentioned in discussions about local high school football. If it is, it's coded with words like "speed" and "athleticism" -- as in an October 10 Post-Dispatch headline that reads: "Speed drives offense for Mehlville." The accompanying article is about Ricky Giles and Darrell Trice, key members of Mehlville's wide-open, high-scoring offense. Both are African-American; both are transfer students from the city.

But the argument that county football programs benefit from having black athletes who are faster or who can jump higher than white suburban players seems to conform to the worst stereotypes about African-Americans and athletic ability. The unspoken assumption is that city football players -- black football players -- are physically more gifted than their white counterparts.

"I wouldn't say it's based on old stereotypes," counters Floyd Irons, athletic director at Vashon High School in the Public High League. "If I had 10,000 white students coming into black schools here, I can see how, football-wise, they might have helped, just in numbers. But would they have helped as much as we've helped them? Let me put it this way: They wouldn't have helped my basketball program."

Under the original transfer plan, run by the courts, African-American students from the city could transfer to any mostly white school system in the county. White students were also allowed to transfer to magnet schools in the city, but the numbers have always been inequitable, resulting in a net loss of more than 9,000 students this year. That, of course, would stand to reason, given the ongoing upheaval in the city's public school system.

"Since it's a purely voluntary program, it's different than forced busing or mandatory desegregation programs in other parts of the country," says Bruce Ellerman, executive director of the nonprofit Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, which has operated the transfer program since 1999. "We've found that more parents in the city are interested in sending their kids to the county than county parents are in sending their kids to the city."

When, under the terms of the settlement, the program was turned over to VICC in 1999, the transfer system was tweaked. Whereas previously students from city schools were eligible to go anywhere in the county, the city was divided into four zones in 1999 -- the far north, the central city, and two south-city areas roughly bisected by Kingshighway -- with corresponding school districts in the county. Henceforth, students from each zone in the city could only apply to transfer to a handful of schools. The change wasn't implemented specifically to address athletic recruiting -- though it does seem to limit a potential transfer student's choices -- but to provide broader opportunity for all city students.

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