• Life Ready Through Sport •

SL Interview: Jonathan Schuppe and Youth Baseball in a Troubled City

May 18, 2015

la84_SL_051815_AChanceToWinThe statistics were grim. In the early 2000s, at a time when crime rates were falling across the country, the city of Newark, NJ, was experiencing an upturn not only in homicides and gun-related homicides, but also non-fatal shootings. These crime categories were spiking almost to the level of the early 1990s, when the crack epidemic wreaked havoc throughout America.

Newark Star-Ledger crime reporter Jonathan Schuppe began to investigate this anomaly. His beat was Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, with a population of about 270,000, the majority of whom are African-American. Schuppe wanted to go beyond the usual “run-and-gun” reportage and, instead, write about the impact of violent crime on individual lives and the community at large.

One of his earliest feature stories focused on the life experiences of Rodney Mason. A former pitching ace for Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, Mason turned to dealing drugs and spent time in prison. His life was altered permanently in 1995, when he was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting in the South Ward, one of Newark’s toughest neighborhoods.

Mason and Schuppe stayed in touch after the story was published. In the spring of 2008, after the city of Newark announced plans to rehabilitate an abandoned park across the street from where Mason lived, he informed Schuppe that he was going to coach a Little League baseball team. His players were kids he corralled from the neighborhood, many of whom were growing up without father figures in their lives.

Schuppe followed Mason and the Elizabeth Avenue Eagles during the first season and wrote about this for the newspaper. He was hooked by their gritty resiliency and decided to follow them over the course of several years, as Mason strove to stop dealing drugs and the kids on the team attempted to avoid the chaotic strife of inner-city life.

The book, titled “A Chance to Win: Boyhood, Baseball, and the Struggle for Redemption in the Inner City” (Henry Holt and Company), was published in 2013. A paperback edition with a revised subtitle and lengthy afterword came out last year, and the book was tabbed as a finalist for the 2015 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction. Schuppe earned a grant from the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia University to help him with the endeavor.

The power of “A Chance to Win” comes from Schuppe’s dogged reporting and his refusal to gloss over the challenges that Rodney Mason and his youth baseball players faced daily. According to Kirkus Reviews, “The author’s experience as a journalist on the streets of Newark helps the city itself become the most powerful character in the drama, as Mason and the Eagles try to escape the cycle of poverty and violence that surrounds them. In the absence of a consistent group of players, the team didn’t ever coalesce, and what appears at first to be a story about the redemptive power of sports becomes, instead, a tale of a city and its residents fighting for survival.”

Schuppe also examines the myriad reasons why African-American athletes have abandoned baseball for other sports, most prominently football and basketball. Despite such outreach efforts as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and the Urban Youth Academy, the number of African-Americans playing Major League Baseball has decreased precipitously over the past 30 years. According to figures published recently in USA Today, only 7.8 percent of ballplayers on the opening-day rosters in 2015 were African-American, down from 19 percent in 1986.

Schuppe lives in Maplewood, a suburb of Newark. He currently works at NBC News, writing for the network’s online bureau. SportsLetter recently spoke with him by phone from his office in New York City.

–David Davis

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SL Interview: McFarland USA’s Coach Jim White

March 26, 2015

la84_SL_032415_McFarland_USA_posterIn 1987, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) held the first high school state cross-country championship meet. The Division IV winner was an unheralded team from McFarland High, a small school (about 750 students) in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. Coached by Jim White, the Cougars were entirely composed of Mexican-American boys, a reflection of the demographics in the town itself. Many of the students also worked in the nearby fields, picking grapes and almonds with their parents, even while they attended school and clocked training miles.

White and McFarland were just getting started. The Cougars went on to win nine state cross-country titles in 14 years, establishing a distance running dynasty in Kern County. Many of his students were able to parlay their running prowess into college scholarships. Their victories helped a town in need of some positive news: about the only story coming out of McFarland since the 1980s concerned a mysterious “cancer cluster” that plagued the area.

Soon, this remarkable story of determination, pride, and love began making headlines outside of the running community. Marc Benjamin, a reporter with the Bakersfield Californian, was the first mainstream journalist to write an in-depth story about Coach White and his hardscrabble runners (who delighted in calling him “Blanco”). That feature was published on November 29, 1996. Almost exactly a year later came a gripping, front-page story written by reporter Mark Arax of the Los Angeles Times, who trailed Coach White when he jumped on his bicycle and pedaled alongside the runners weaving through the vineyards.

In 2004, Gary Smith, the longform wordsmith at Sports Illustrated, followed with an extended feature about McFarland. “No one can figure it out, how the runners with the shortest legs and the grimmest lives began winning everything once Blanco took over the program in 1980,” wrote Smith.

This year, Disney turned the feel-good story into a heartwarming movie titled “McFarland, USA,” directed by Niki Caro and starring Kevin Costner as Jim White. The film, which is advertised as being “based on a true story,” manages to stay true to McFarland’s authentic spirit, even as it strays from the literal truth. “Predictable and predictably rousing, this inspirational sports pic earns points for its big-hearted portrait of life in an impoverished California farming town, the likes of which we too rarely see on American screens,” wrote Variety’s Justin Chang.

SportsLetter spoke by phone with coach Jim White, now 73 and retired, about coaching youth sports and about the new movie.
–David Davis

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SL Interview: John Branch on Derek Boogaard and CTE in Hockey

November 6, 2014

la84_Sl_110614_Boy_on_iceDerek Boogaard was known as a rugged enforcer in the National Hockey League – the toughest of the tough guys – who had only one duty to perform: use his 6-foot 7-inch, 265-pound frame and lethal fists to protect his teammates on the ice. The lumbering kid from Saskatchewan did his job so well that he was able to sign a four-year contract with the New York Rangers worth a cool $6.5 million.

But the very talent that got Boogaard to the NHL proved to be his undoing. Constant fighting led to injuries to his back, his fists, and his shoulder; he endured multiple concussions. The debilitating pain contributed to Boogaard becoming addicted to prescription drugs. In 2011, Boogaard died due to an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkillers. He was 28. When his brain was examined after his death, he was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), due to repeated blows to the head.

In “Boy On Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard” (W.W. Norton), New York Times reporter John Branch investigates how playing the macho role of enforcer – and the physical and mental anguish that he endured – brought about Boogaard’s demise. “Enforcers never complained about their role,” Branch writes, “and players rarely admitted to concussions. Enforcers, especially, did not concede to anything that could be construed as weakness or a lost edge. Such an admission raised doubts about an athlete’s commitment and toughness, the most important qualities for an enforcer. To admit to concussions was to commit career suicide.”

Branch goes beyond Boogaard’s life and fistic career to examine how and why fighting has become so ingrained in the culture of professional hockey. He traces the evolution of youth hockey in Canada via the “billet” system, the popularity of websites that “score” the results of each bout and rank each fighter, and the growing consciousness about the threat of concussions among hockey players that parallels what has happened within the National Football League. The result is a cautionary and sobering story.

“Boy On Ice” emerged from deep reporting that Branch did for a three-part article in the Times titled “Punched Out,” which won a Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma. In 2013, Branch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Snow Fall,” a multi-media effort about a destructive avalanche in the Cascades mountain range of Washington.

SportsLetter spoke to Branch by phone from his home in northern California.
– David Davis

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SL Interview: “We Could Be King” Director Judd Ehrlich

July 3, 2014

Dick's Sporting Goods "We Could Be King" - 2014 Tribeca Film FestivalFor years, students at Martin Luther King High School considered Germantown High School to be their archrivals. The two schools, located about a mile apart, vied for athletic supremacy in northwest Philadelphia.

That changed in 2013.  Deep budget cuts in the Philadelphia school district forced the closure of 99-year-old Germantown High (as well as about three dozen other schools in the area). The two schools were forced to merge; Germantown High students transferred to King, their green-and-white colors now purple and gold.

The city’s budget crisis also impacted youth sports programs throughout the district. After-school sports activities were suddenly in jeopardy, part of a nationwide trend that has seen some $3.5 billion cut from public school sports programs over the past four years, primarily in low-income neighborhoods.

In the summer of 2013, as the start of classes at King High and the opening game of the football season approached, the situation was in flux. The head coach of the Cougars, Ed Dunn, was a math teacher who had just been laid off. Dunn was planning to coach the Cougars as a volunteer, without any security that he would be rehired, even as he was trying to figure out how to peacefully combine the rosters of Germantown and King.

There was one other obstacle: King High’s football team had not won a game in two years.

This was the scene that awaited director Judd Ehrlich when he went to shoot a documentary about King High’s football team. The film, “We Could Be King,” chronicles the dramatic struggle, and redemption, of the Cougars during the 2013 season in ways that Ehrlich could not have anticipated.

The movie is particularly timely because, on a broader level, it tackles the issue of budget cuts that are becoming commonplace and injurious for after-school sports programs in public high schools across the United States.

Ehrlich is the founder of Flatbush Pictures in New York City. Previously, he directed “Run For Your Life,” a documentary about New York City Marathon creator Fred Lebow, and “Magic Camp,” a documentary about teenagers attending summer camp for aspiring magicians.

He recently spoke to SportsLetter about “We Could Be King” from his offices in Brooklyn.

–David Davis

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Sports Drinks, Energy Drinks, and Unhealthy Behavior

May 14, 2014

A recent study revealed that adolescents who drank more sports drinks and energy drinks than their peers also had higher levels of physical activity and participation in organized sports, which makes sense.  But, the study also showed that these same kids were more likely to drink sugary soft drinks, play more video games, and try cigarettes.

The study was published online in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

From Education Week:

“The observed associations between consumption of sports and energy drinks and these unhealthy behaviors are troubling because they may indicate a clustering of problem behaviors among some adolescents,” the authors conclude. “Given these findings, advertising of sports and energy drinks to youth is particular concerning.”