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failing our athletes > part 6

That awful empty feeling

With spirit and support lagging, lack of attendance is a going concern

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009

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It was senior night, South Boston High School's final home football game of the 2008 season, and coach Sean Guthrie wanted to make it memorable for the players who were ending their high school careers. Unable to find anyone in city government to switch on the public address system, Guthrie rented a generator, hauled a pair of speakers to Saunders Stadium at Moakley Park, and asked a fellow teacher to serve as the announcer for a ceremony honoring the seniors.

Forget that the scoreboard had not worked for seven years and that the new artificial turf had drained poorly from a recent storm. Everything else seemed in order as South Boston ran up a comfortable lead against Charlestown, clearing the way for a once-in-a-lifetime halftime ceremony for the team's 10 seniors.

The only problem: Almost no one bothered to show up.

As Guthrie’s colleague called the roll of South Boston’s seniors, he shared the grandstand with 11 spectators.

It was “Friday Night Lights,’’ Boston-style: 11 supporters for more than 60 players, coaches, and cheerleaders. As thousands of commuters rolled past on the nearby expressway and downtown financial towers twinkled in the distance, the expanse of empty bleachers in the football stadium looked like the aftermath of a fire drill.

The scene is common at high school sports events across the city, where athletes rarely hear the roar of a crowd, see their parents, schoolmates, or teachers turn out to support them, or simply know that someone is taking note of special moments in their lives.

“It’s pitiful,’’ said Sandra Redish, the mother of a West Roxbury High cheerleader who has witnessed similar scenes at other competitions. “There should be a lot more parents here. What’s going on?’’

Guthrie, who played football for Boston College and in NFL Europe, was so dismayed by the empty stands that he changed the start of his Friday home games last season from 3:30 to 7 p.m., believing it would boost attendance. No such luck, even though admission was free.

“I don’t know where everybody is,’’ he said. “It’s a shame.’’

The turnout was no better for many events at White Stadium, the city’s premier high school stadium in Franklin Park, where football, soccer, and track teams compete.

“I love White Stadium, but it’s a sin when you play a game on a beautiful, 60-degree Friday afternoon and you turn around and there are only 10 people there,’’ said Paul Duhaime, Burke’s assistant football and head baseball coach.

Preoccupied parents
Coaches say it is heartrending to watch the efforts some students make to commute to schools and games through dangerous neighborhoods, maintain their academic eligibility, and dedicate themselves to their teams, only to play their games in virtual anonymity. Longtime coaches said attendance has faded as poverty has risen in the school population. Working parents who have no time to attend teacher meetings have even less time to attend sports events.

“The parents will never be there,’’ said Paulo De Barros, the Burke boys soccer coach who founded the Teen Center at St. Peter’s Church in Dorchester. “They are working two or three jobs so their families can survive.’’

Not a single parent turned out to support Burke in its tournament soccer game on a balmy Sunday afternoon last November against Wayland in Dorchester. In fact, De Barros benched several top players because they arrived late for a pregame meeting for reasons that reflected the hard demands of home. The benched players included Dory Vicente, one of the city’s best goalkeepers.

While more than 50 supporters cheered Wayland to its 2-0 victory, Vicente sat on the sidelines with his aunt, Maria DePina, a former BC track star who teaches at the Burke. With DePina translating his Cape Verdean Creole, Vicente said he arrived late because he needed to watch his siblings until his mother returned from her job as a hairdresser. His father was in Cape Verde.

“In the suburbs, God forbid if a parent doesn’t go to a game,’’ DePina said. “The problem in Boston is that nobody comes.’’

Charlestown track coach Kristyn Hughes, who competed before ample crowds as an athlete at Woburn High School before she pole vaulted for BC, was struck by the contrast to her own experience. Her Charlestown teams have won state championships the last two years with nationally competitive athletes, yet in her six years of coaching, she said, she has met only one parent at a meet.

Some of that is economic pressures. Some of the Charlestown players’ families are so needy, Hughes said, that when her students take home their medals, their parents ask, “How much can we get for them?’’

But some of it seems more like simple absenteeism.

“A lot of parents aren’t a big part of their children’s lives anymore,’’ said Madison Park football coach Roosevelt Robinson. “One of the saddest things is that I might see a parent at graduation, and I think, ‘I’ve had your child for four years and I’ve met you once or twice, or maybe not at all.’ ’’

School spirit is lacking
It is a situation exacerbated, at some schools, by teachers and administrators who show scant commitment to their schools’ athletes. Numerous coaches said their schools rarely, if ever, stage pregame rallies. Some coaches said they are rebuffed when they ask for team news to be broadcast on the school’s public address system. And only Boston Latin rallies its teams with a band.

“When I went to Latin in the ’70s, we had rallies and plenty of school spirit,’’ said Hyde Park softball coach Bruce Collotta as he rooted for the school’s football team against English. “But we’ve never had school spirit here.’’

Many coaches attribute the problem in part to the splintering of large education complexes into smaller schools. West Roxbury, Hyde Park, South Boston, and Dorchester each has been divided into at least three schools, each occupying a different section of the building. Lunch hours are separate, and interaction between students and teachers in the schools is extremely limited.

“Breaking up the school has really hurt us,’’ said West Roxbury football coach Brian Collins. “There’s not the same kind of pride. I went to the Walpole game one night and there were 5,000 people. We’re lucky if we get 50.’’

Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson acknowledged the problem, though she commended three schools in Brighton - Brighton High, Another Course to College, and Boston Community Leadership Academy - for rallying together in Brighton High’s 2007 Division 4 Super Bowl victory.

“We have some schools that don’t really understand yet how to work together and promote athletics,’’ Johnson said, “but we know that it’s possible.’’

No sense of community
A lack of neighborhood ties also hurts. More than 30 years after the city began busing vast numbers of students out of their neighborhoods in an effort to achieve racial integration, so few students attend schools in their own geographic areas that local interest in sports teams has plummeted. The problem is especially acute in areas such as West Roxbury, South Boston, and Charlestown.

“I only have one kid from West Roxbury on my roster, so you can see why there’s no real community support,’’ Collins said.

Attendance is typically better for basketball, the city’s most popular high school sport. The crowds also are generally larger when teams from East Boston, Brighton, and a couple of exam schools are involved because their headmasters actively promote sports. But athletes at other Boston schools struggle for recognition.

When South Boston advanced to the Eastern Massachusetts football tournament last fall for the first time in a decade, its opponent, Martha’s Vineyard, rolled into the stadium in Taunton with busloads of fans, dwarfing the number of Southie supporters. South Boston’s crowd could have been much larger, but school administrators denied a request for a bus to shuttle students to the game.

South Boston lost, 42-14, after winning the city’s North Division championship. The experience left Guthrie with a bitter taste.

“Most schools, when you win a championship, they put up a banner in front of the school,’’ Guthrie said. “We haven’t seen one.’’

Brighton boys basketball coach Erle Garrett, who also officiates city football games, said he was “gravely disappointed’’ by the turnout at many high school games. He plans to send letters to parents next fall asking them which time slots would best enable them to attend their children’s contests.

“I don’t care when it is, I’ll change the schedule,’’ Garrett said. “They need to understand it’s part of being a parent. To save your kids, you’ve got to be around your kids.’’

The problem may not be easily solved, said Ken Still, Boston’s athletic director. He said it demands the community’s attention.

“This is the kind of thing that needs to change if we are going to get high school sports in the city going again,’’ Still said. “It’s going to take a lot of work.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

more from part 6