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Original Issue

A Pro Vote for School Sports

Professional teams should throw a lifeline to struggling inner-city athletic programs

A couple of items came to light last week, the timing of which we found interesting. The Los Angeles Lakers gave the unretiring Magic Johnson a one-year, $14.6 million contract extension, a record sum for a team-sport athlete. Two days earlier 64 public high school principals in Chicago had unanimously voted to eliminate sports and other extracurricular activities—band, chorus, etc.—if $1.5 million in budget cuts made by the school board on Sept. 22 was not somehow reinstated.

Are the two items related? Yes and no. Obviously, Johnson's salary has no connection with the budget woes of Chicago's schools. If the Lakers hadn't given Magic another penny, Chicago's schools, like many other inner-city school systems in the nation, would still be in dire economic straits. And Johnson would still be a multimillionaire.

The items do, however, share the common ground of sports and money. And together they provide a disquieting snapshot of America in October 1992. One man, admittedly a very famous and wonderful man, will pocket $14.6 million in one year for playing basketball. Meanwhile, for about one tenth of that sum, 27,000 Chicago high school kids could be deprived of that joy and others, like cheerleading, playing football and running track. They could miss out on all the benefits derived from high school sports—discipline, teamwork, camaraderie—while having that old favorite, personal sacrifice, shoved down their young throats. Thus does the gap between rich and poor ever widen in our country, so that it now includes not just wealth but also everyday experiences.

Not to single out Johnson. He has no ties to Chicago, and his is just the latest bloated superstar contract. Chicago school superintendent Ted Kimbrough was quick to focus attention closer to home, saying that city officials would call on Bull star Michael Jordan and Bear coach Mike Ditka to help bail the school system out. The sentiment behind that idea was swiftly picked up by frustrated students. "We buy their products; why can't they help us out?" asked one.

Of course, they can, and probably will. Even as I write this, a Chicago radio station, the Chicago Sun-Times, many businessmen and several NBA players who played in Chicago schools have started raising funds. The prediction here is, now that the city has been aroused, the $1.5 million (43% of the $3.4 million activities budget) will be raised in time to save school sports and extracurricular programs for another year.

But what about 1993-94 and beyond? What about high schools in New York, Los Angeles and Detroit, which have suffered similar budget cuts? Are we to hold our high school sports programs ransom year after year? No one disputes their worth in helping to keep kids in school, out of gangs, off the streets. Study after study has shown that kids involved in activities achieve higher grades than nonparticipants. Still, school boards strapped for funds, facing teacher layoffs and cuts in academic programs, continue to treat sports and other activities—which seldom account for more than 3% of the average high school budget—as hostages. How better to dramatize the schools' economic plight?

Academics and activities are part of the same process, a process known as education. In eliminating any part of the process, America is shortchanging its youth, and a more damning charge cannot be made against a society. Our schools need money, and many pro sports teams have money to burn. No one put a gun to Jerry Buss's head to offer Magic $14.6 million. No one threatened to blow up the Tribune Tower if the Cubs didn't offer Ryne Sandberg $7.1 million a year.

It's time for professional sports teams to give back a little more to the communities that have enriched them. For God's sake, when was the last time those paragons of greed, team owners, colluded for the benefit of anyone besides themselves? What power they have; if only they would channel it in a positive direction. But to what end is their influence applied beyond their personal enrichment?

It would be nice to think that a socially conscious league commissioner like the NBA's David Stern might take the lead in this battle. Stern once told me his personal hero was JFK. Well, Commissioner, we've seen what our cities have done for professional sports in the way of building new stadiums, subsidizing luxury boxes and offering tax breaks. It's time for professional sports to ask what they can do for our cities.

Stern was the first sports commissioner to convince owners and players to share in league revenues. What if he could persuade the players and the owners to voluntarily cut a third party in on the action: the city schools? Wouldn't it make you feel better about those multimillion-dollar contracts if you knew some of that money—say, 5%—was going to finance high school sports? Would Magic really mind getting paid $14 million instead of $14.6 million?

Maybe it's naive to even suggest that such altruism is possible. There are other ways. Our cities are not powerless. A year ago, when San Francisco's school system proposed huge budget cuts that would have eliminated high school athletic programs, city legislators levied a tax on every ticket sold to events held in Candlestick Park. The measure has raised $550,000, all earmarked to finance high school sports. A ticket tax is, of course, a tax on fans. Other cities should look into the possibility of passing a tax on team revenues to benefit high school sports. Chicago would be a fine place to start.