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The Lost Lessons Of The Payton Prep Saga

Forty years working with kids and their families has taught me a number of things, one of which is that rational people occasionally react irrationally when confronted with issues concerning their children. Furthermore, parents who may be somewhat unhinged to begin with become more so when their kids face adversity.

The accounts of the Walter Payton College Prep's baseball team's sticky situation concerning its forfeit of a game against Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep reminded me once again of this kind of parental reaction.

I haven't talked to anyone involved in this story, but I have coached students from Payton over the course of seven summers in the Liberty League, a high school in-house league under the auspices of the Welles Park Parents Association. I also was the varsity coach at Francis Parker for four seasons (1985-88).

I even saw Payton play at Brooks a few springs ago. It was a state regional game between Payton and the University of Chicago Lab School. I had players from my summer team playing on both sides.

The current story goes something like this: Payton had a 7 p.m. game scheduled for April 27 at Brooks, located at 250 E. 111th St. When Payton coach Will Wittleder counted the number of players who said they would be available to play the game, he quickly realized he didn't have a full team.

From the accounts I read, the coach made the trip to Brooks to personally inform the evening's opponents that Payton could not field a team. Hence Payton forfeited.

I spent the spring of 2005 as the junior varsity coach at Kelvyn Park High School, so I have some experience with the workings of Chicago Public League sports. Forfeits - for whatever reason - are not isolated instances.

My ballclub was slated to play a first-round playoff game on a weekday after school against a school on the Far South Side. We had the higher seed, so they had to travel to our home field, Hanson Park at Fullerton and Central.

At the seeding meeting, the opposing coach came up to me, asked where our field was located, and - to paraphrase - said, "You know, that's a long way for us to travel. We wouldn't be able to leave until three o'clock. It's just more convenient for us to get a game that day with another school in Indiana." No drama, no argument, just a coach who thought it didn't make sense to put himself and his team in traffic to play a game and get home after 8 p.m.

Experience tells me that Wittleder has 15 or 16 kids on his team. Because many of his parents attend the games - and this being a Saturday evening contest - he surmised that parents could drive the kids to the South Side. In addition, some of his players may have their own driver's licenses. He decided against ordering a team bus, not an unreasonable decision in this age of budget cuts and school closings. Obviously it took only seven or eight kids to say they weren't coming, and the coach had a problem.

Apparently that's what happened.

According to the Sun-Times, Wittleder claimed that some parents didn't want their kids in the Brooks Prep neighborhood on a Saturday night because the area is potentially dangerous, which quickly created a picture of white families not wanting their sons in a black neighborhood.

Predictably the Payton administration downplayed this aspect, and Brooks principal D'Andre Weaver, in a letter on the school's website, wrote, "I want to strongly encourage all members of our community to resist the temptation to engage in futile discourse around topics that continue to perpetuate racial and economic segregation in Chicago."

That did little to stop the controversy. My interpretation is that some - not all - of the Payton parents weren't interested in seeing themselves and their children being represented in a negative light. A scapegoat was required, and they easily found one in their sons' coach.

We have learned via the media that Wittleder benched some players for missing practice. The one parent who was identified in Saturday's Sun-Times article sarcastically admitted that players indeed missed practices for "such shameful reasons as college visits, studying for tests and taking standardized or placement tests."

The adage "if you don't practice, you don't play" is familiar with most of us who have played and/or coached. So regardless of the reasons for missing practice, Wittleder clearly isn't the first coach to play the kids who show up most consistently.

Francis Parker is renown for educating the "whole child," and sometimes this meant that students were encouraged to participate in all kinds of extracurricular activities: sports, plays, debate, music, and more.

As the school's varsity baseball coach, did I want my players to skip pre-season practice so that they could rehearse for the spring play? Not really. Was my ego involved? Absolutely. I wanted the young men to choose baseball over drama.

Coaches in our summer program had only 13 players on a team and faced similar situations because kids had summer jobs, family vacations, summer school, proms, and a bunch of other stuff that got in the way of their commitment to baseball. I certainly wasn't going to stand in the way of a guy who needed to work, although some of the other reasons for not showing up made me question whether a few of my players made a good choice to play summer baseball.

As a coach, if you care about developing your players so that they work toward their potential, you need a commitment from them. Their young lives don't stop as a result of playing on a team, but c'mon man, show up, play hard, support your teammates, and have fun.

At the same time, the coach needs to know his audience. Francis Parker, Walter Payton, and the Liberty League are not professional baseball. They're not college ball, and for that matter, they're not the Chicago Catholic League, which has three teams ranked in the area's top five.

A balance is required somewhere between being a hard-ass and an anything-goes babysitter. Maybe Wittleder would be better suited for an environment other than Walter Payton. Or maybe he's a lousy coach and poor communicator like some of the parents say.

A coach is basically a teacher, and some teachers are more capable than others. Some know how to talk to kids, and some don't. Some have greater command of the content than others. In the course of one's education, you learn to deal with all kinds of teachers.
We all have had teachers whom we fondly remember and others whom we have long forgotten. That's part of growing up, and parents need not protect their children from that reality because one day parents aren't going to be around to bail out their kids. They'll have to do it for themselves and the sooner the better.

My sense is what actually occurred at Payton prep last week is somewhere between the parents being raging racists and the coach being totally incompetent.

The parents didn't support the program. Otherwise they would have made sure that their kid got to the game. If they didn't know all the details - where, what time, how to get there, etc. - they could have asked. Some of the parents - at least the vocal ones - blame the coach. They assume little or no responsibility or accountability which, in my view, is not desirable role modeling for our young people.

The coach likely has misjudged the Payton culture. Sure, playing ball is nice, but it can't take precedence over "more important" matters. As a coach in that kind of atmosphere, you either have to adapt to it without totally compromising your expectations and values or resign and seek a position which is more in line with your thinking.

What gets lost is what's best for the kids. The message from some parents is, "If you don't like the coach (or teacher), protest, draw attention, and make noise to get rid of him or her." If the coach is attempting to drive a wedge between the parents and their sons - "you're not coming to the game because your parents won't let you" - nothing helpful is accomplished.

This story would have died quickly if the health of the students had been the top priority. Somewhere that seems to have gotten lost.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Shani B.:

Your explanation seems reasonable enough, sure. But I can't help but think about the Brooks kids, and the lasting impression that they have about Payton. That should matter too.

I have to admit, the lessons I thought you would have included weren't there. The lesson about how to consider what it means when Payton plays schools in parts of the city that look like Brooks, and what it means when it is decided that the gesture isn't important enough to honor.

The other unsaid factor that everyone knows, but nobody says is that while Brooks and Payton are selective enrollment schools on paper, everyone knows it doesn't mean the same thing. That is why the gesture, the importance of the gesture of Payton playing schools like Brooks is so important to find, well, important.

Also, in this day and age, this all just gets tiring. Either it's OK to treat people like people, all the time, or it's not when you have reasonable explanations. At some point, it just makes sense to find importance in a bigger message. That while Payton is aware of its power, prestige, and privilege, its representatives are aware it is part of the CPS community, and the CPS athletic community.

The gesture would not have solved all the city's problems, but it sure wouldn't have felt like something from my parent's other-worldly time of off-limit swimming pools.

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