By: Taylor Begley
There are 17,000 black and Latino students in New York City without access to sports in their public schools, David Garcia-Rosen and the Fair Play Coalition have been fighting to change that disparity.
Garcia-Rosen – director of School Culture and Athletics at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters and an Organizer with NYC Let ‘Em Play and the Fair Play Coalition – responded by creating the Small Schools Athletic League.
“It wasn’t just a league, it was a movement. We needed to empower the students to fight for the right to play,” Garcia-Rosen said.
The inequity began when New York City moved to a small schools’ system, which was created in 2002 when the New York City Department of Education closed many large, comprehensive high schools with a history of low performance and created hundreds of new small secondary schools.
Garcia-Rosen believes once the new system kicked in, many inner-city interscholastic athletic programs began to disappear overnight.
“I couldn’t just sit around and watch that continue,” Garcia-Rosen said.
The Small Schools Athletic League (SSAL) was created as a temporary fix to the problem. Garcia-Rosen said ultimately the problem would be up to New York City to fix permanently, but he hoped his league would prove it possible.
The SSAL began with eight schools competing in soccer and within a year, Garcia-Rosen said the program exploded to include 47 high schools with over 1,000 student-athletes competing in multiple different sports.
Garcia-Rosen said he taught his student-athletes personal commitment and leadership through promoting non-violent social change.
He noticed the students would strategically play soccer in front of New York City Hall because they did not have a team at their school. Garcia-Rosen says the Department of Education refused to work toward a solution.
In 2014, Garcia-Rosen’s students marched into city hall where Chancellor Carmen Farina was about to speak and delivered thousands of petitions to her. He said this resulted in some funds being given to the Small Schools Athletic League.
Garcia-Rosen said the city became frustrated by the protests, so it took over and dismantled the Small Schools Athletic League. The students – inspired by the 1968 Olympic Games – marched into city hall chanting, “civil rights matter,” and “let them play,” while wearing black gloves with their fists raised, just like Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico.
Even with a job suspension on the line, Garcia-Rosen continued to rally with the students.
“I made the decision that I wasn’t going to continue working in a system that was denying my students the access to sports,” Garcia-Rosen said.
In June 2018, a class-action lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education was announced due to alleged violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for not providing black and Latino students with equal access to the Public School Athletic League (PSAL).
“What makes it even more infuriating is that when you look at the experience of a white or Asian student at a New York City public school, you find that they have way more access to every sport offered by the PSAL,” Garcia-Rosen said.
He said that it is not only a sports issue, but an education issue.
Students with access to sports do better in school, Garcia-Rosen said.
“It literally turns shy students into leaders and it turns drop-outs into graduates,” he said.
After creating the Small Schools Athletic League, Garcia-Rosen said that two student who had previously dropped out of school came back and they graduated. The addition of a baseball team gave these students the motivation to not only return, but to excel in school, he said.
Garcia-Rosen said he had good news to share at the 2018 LA84 Foundation Summit. He said the New York City Department of Education – under new leadership – is now an ally in the fight for sports equity. Garcia-Rosen now believes the leaders of New York City are ready to work on a solution.
In order to speed up the process, Garcia-Rosen called attendees to show their support by tweeting, “We support the student athletes of @fairplayNYC fighting for the right to play! #FairPlayForAll @DOEChancellor @LRobinsonNYC @NYCMayor.”