Mpls high school athletics now stepsisters to suburbs


Degree of affluence, open enrollment are factors in league’s decline



Is the Minneapolis City Conference today a non-factor locally, especially in the higher profile sports such as football and basketball? The city’s daily newspaper named just two Washburn players (second team) on their all-metro selections.

No city females in volleyball. Only Washburn (boys) was listed in the paper’s top 10 — not a male or female conference basketball player was mentioned in their so-called ones to watch.

What happened?

Longtime observers cite two reasons: open enrollment, which erased the old “neighborhood school” rules, and the demise of middle-school athletics. Both factors occurred almost simultaneously two decades ago.

Minneapolis Roosevelt Athletic Director Al Frost, a graduate of old Minneapolis Central High School in the 1960s, vividly remembers the conference’s glory days. “We had 11 schools in our conference,” he recalls. “We were all very competitive.”

Seemingly now the seven-school league — Edison, Henry, North, Roosevelt, South, Southwest and Washburn — has lost that competitive edge. “Overall, I think we’re about average,” admits Frost when asked to grade the once-proud City Conference. “Is our conference very competitive? Not in football.”

For example, Roosevelt didn’t field a varsity team, instead playing a junior varsity schedule this fall. Low numbers was a problem, Frost explains: “Those kids had to play both ways. When you’re tired, you can get hurt real easily. Personally, I didn’t like [not having varsity football]… It was a safety issue for me.”

The “togetherness” once seen in the city league seems to have gone as well, Frost believes. He fondly remembers when the entire community attended city football and basketball games. “I don’t think we have that community feeling in Minneapolis [anymore]. Things have changed.”

Furthermore, City athletics has become “polarizing,” he adds. “If you are a football player, you go to a certain school. If you are a cross-country runner, you go to certain schools. We’re [still] pretty competitive in [boys’] basketball. We have one or two teams in baseball and tennis. We have South and Southwest in girls’ and boys’ soccer.”

The numbers are down at some schools for some sports as well. “It’s too bad that we can’t require each student to participate in one activity, athletic or some other [extracurricular] activity — chess club, Spanish club or something — as a graduation requirement,” Frost suggests.

Then there’s the existing perception that “inner-city schools…are inferior to [suburban schools],” somewhat shared by city and suburban folk alike, admits Frost. “We [as city parents] got duped and began to send our kids elsewhere, saying that that is a better school district.”

Add those city parents who Frost calls “very manipulative — they seize on everything if they can,” using open enrollment to better promote their child’s athletic prowess. He suggests a modification of the rules: “You can go to any school you want, but you compete [athletically] in your attendance area. That would give us equity.”

What also hurt city schools is the constant struggle to adequately budget prep athletics. “Minneapolis is at the bottom — about one-quarter of one percent goes to athletic activities,” says Frost. “The [other] metro [schools] average about three and a half percent — some six percent — toward athletic activities.”

The district-wide $60 student participation fee for each sport in Minneapolis high schools “don’t even come close” to funding city athletics, Frost says. “Suburban schools charge $75 to $300, but you are talking about affluent versus the non-affluent.”

Furthermore, while some suburban schools routinely generate high-number gate receipts at athletic events, “I’m lucky if I can get a gate receipt of $400,” says Frost.

He suggests local pro teams “adopting” a city school. These teams perhaps could establish an endowment that annually could defray needy students’ activity fees. Or help purchase athletic equipment. Or use those shoe contracts to help outfit a school’s basketball team with sneakers or uniforms.

“The district should hire someone to contact the Timberwolves, Lynx, Vikings, Wild, and all these professional teams,” Frost points out. “I’m not talking about a couple of thousand dollars, although that helps. Give up to $50,000 to help our schools. It really comes down to how much money you are willing to invest in our schools’ athletic programs.”

The local teams, especially those who want us to help pay for their stadiums, could demonstrate a serious civic involvement besides donating nosebleed tickets and occasionally reading to kids for photo opportunities.

Unfortunately, as long as the belief persists that city schools are inferior to suburban schools, whether in athletics or whatever, the Minneapolis City Conference will continue to receive third-tier mainstream media coverage and remain stepsisters to suburban athletic programs.

“I think what happened in Minneapolis also probably happened in other cities,” concludes Frost. “But not to the extent that it did in Minnesota.”


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