NYC Educator Cries Foul on Equity in School Sports, Files Civil Rights Complaint

Adams: Many students don't have access to teams — and even if they do, schools & families can't afford coaches, uniforms, equipment or transportation.

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In New York City, all public school sports teams are administered by the Public School Athletic League (PSAL). Individual schools apply to the league for permission to form a team. If approved, the league pays for coaches, referees for games and meets, and access to city playing fields.

“Team uniforms are purchased by schools,” Jenna Lyle, Department of Education deputy press secretary, tells me. “Other needs, such as equipment and transportation, are funded both by the [DOE] central [office] and also at the school level.”

This is the official party line. But it isn’t the case at all schools, leading to gross inequity across the five boroughs.

To start with, not all schools are granted the right to field a team in all the sports that they request, even if they have enough interested players and guaranteed funding from their school. This is why, in April, David Garcia-Rosen, director of school culture and athletics at Bronx Academy of Letters, an Urban Assembly public 6-12 school, filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights charging that:

PSAL is violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by adopting a facially neutral policy that is having an adverse disparate impact on students based on race, color or national origin.

He elaborates: “The way to create equity in sports is for every kid to have access to the PSAL through Individual Access. If your school doesn’t have a swim team, you could try out for the swim team at another school. In spring of 2023, thanks to the Individual Access Pilot Program, every single student in NYC finally had access to every single sport they offered. That’s the holy grail of equity.”

Yet, according to his complaint, in fall 2023, the program was amended so that, rather than it being available to every single student, it would instead apply to:

Students who attend schools with fewer than six teams and students in targeted districts with limited access to sports.

“But the DOE has not provided, despite numerous requests from me, what are the target districts,” Garcia-Rosen asserts. “My complaint is showing that Black and Latino students have less access to PSAL than all other students. Black and Latino students are much more likely to go to a school with more than six teams, but way less than the 25 teams than the average white student has access to. All I am asking for is to simply return to the policy of spring 2023. They literally solved the problem less than a year ago, and then re-created the problem.”

But even if PSAL were to reinstate guaranteed Individual Access for all, it would not be enough to bring about true sports equity in NYC schools. 

There would still be the issue of adequate coaching. 

“PSAL coaches are only paid for 10 hours a week,” recounts a mother whose child has participated in PSAL for two years. “Track meets can run for eight hours, and since coaches must go to meets, they don’t go to practice, so kids aren’t getting any training.” She added that at some schools, coaches volunteer their time and even buy necessities with their own money, hoping for eventual reimbursement by the PSAL. Students who can afford it get private coaching outside of school. At others, though, the athletes practice without professional guidance.

Uniforms and transportation to games are another inequitable issue.

Amanda Vender, a mom at Thomas Edison High in Queens, says her children’s “uniforms and transportation are completely provided. I have never had to pay for anything.”

At the same time, members of the rugby team at Columbia Secondary School in Harlem — many of whom live in upper Manhattan — had to get themselves to and from the city championship game in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, by public transportation — a 90-minute trip each way.

At Brooklyn Technical High School, when there isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for uniforms, the Alumni and Parents associations step in. A member explains, “We have a line in our budget dedicated to sports. Coaches often email us directly, and we almost always approve.”

A parent on the PTA of a large, arts-focused high school echoes, “Our PTA has paid for uniforms, balls and bowling alley fees for the bowling team, team hoodies for the table tennis team and various gear for the girls fencing team.”

Schools without robust PTAs and alumni associations, however, are forced to turn to families to cover a variety of shortfalls, or forfeit competing altogether. With over 70% of NYC public school students classified as economically disadvantaged, it’s obvious that a majority of schools and families do not have the means to pay for the coaching, uniforms, equipment and transportation that PSAL doesn’t cover — even if their school is granted permission to start a team.

“If you want to compete at the college level, you need to go to meets where college coaches can evaluate you,” another parent explains. “But these big meets are only attended by big schools, or else the parents have to fund it. Schools without big teams can’t afford to go, so their athletes don’t get the chance to shine. Tons of schools don’t get to big meets, and their students are the ones who need those college and scholarship opportunities most.”

“Sports is an academic issue,” Garcia-Rosen says. “Kids who participate in sports have higher graduation rates; they’re less likely to be arrested at 5 o’clock, because they’re on sports fields; they’re less likely to get pregnant; they’re less likely to use drugs. All the things we’re trying to avoid with our students, sports help with. All schools should have sports.”

Asked to comment regarding the pending civil right complaint, Deputy Press Secretary David Clarke replied, “There has been no scaling back of our commitment to providing equitable access to PSAL sports. We have aggressively expanded the number of new teams by 222 over the past 3 years (146 this year alone), created over 20 shared access programs between schools at different locations, and offered individuals access to try out for teams at other schools, including about 1,500 this year alone.

“The [current] legal stipulation requires we prioritize districts and schools with fewer teams and focuses on adding teams and creating shared access programs, with individual access intended only for students at schools with very limited access to team sports. We ensure students in those districts have the legally required priority access, and then consider other requests, and we found that broadening access beyond what was legally stipulated moved us further away from the goals of the stipulation to increase access on a schoolwide basis. Our very first priority is following the stipulation to ensure that students have equitable access to athletics at or close to their home.” 

Garcis-Rosen disagrees. “They literally renamed the program ‘access’ from ‘all access’ this fall. In the spring of 2023, every student in NYC had ‘guaranteed individual access.’ Under the new PSAL policy, only 8% of Black and Latino students have ‘guaranteed individual access.’ The new policy took guaranteed individual access away from 183,680 Black and Latino students. While adding 222 teams over the past three years is great, there have also been over 100 teams dropped from the PSAL this year alone.”

Launching new teams does nothing to help students enrolled in schools that are too small to field teams of their own, yet too big — or located in the wrong neighborhood — for their athletes to qualify to play at other schools. As the rules stand now, those kids are still blocked from participating.

Creating new teams doesn’t lead to equity if they are not available to all. The only thing that will is making it possible for every student to have access to every team sport, and ensuring that all those teams, whether or not they’re able to obtain outside contributions, are equally funded.

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