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Friday, October 22, 2004

From the Shelves: Florida Reviews, Part Two

Robert Andrew Powell We Own This Game: A Season In The Adult World Of Youth Football

Florida is one of those states where football is essentially a religion, a devotion that manifests itself from the pros to the colleges to high school all the way down to the Pop Warner youth leagues. Currently over 170 Floridians play in the NFL, the third-highest number after Californians and Texans, and it's a good bet that virtually all of them got their start in youth leagues. This state-wide love/obsession for the game is magnified in places like Miami's Liberty City, perhaps the worst neighborhood in a city notorious for bad ones. The very real problems of somewhere like Liberty City, with its struggles with bad housing, bad schools, high crime, drugs, fractured families and persistently high unemployment, give professional sports a particularly powerful allure. The constant elevation of young black men from communities like Liberty City to the unimaginable wealth granted by the pro leagues maintains this. The youth leagues, the first point of contact kids have with organized sport, thus become imbued with these competitive desires, these dreams.

On the most basic level this is an account of the 2001 seasons of two teams that Robert Andrew Powell followed for the year. One, the Liberty City Warriors, is based in the heart of Miami's African-American community. The other, the Palmetto Raiders, is a team from a tony suburb whose white coach had achieved great success by recruiting talented black kids from less salubrious parts of metropolitan Miami. In the end, though, it is about much more than just the kids, it is about the coaches, the parents, the hangers-on, the community surrounding the teams, the city and its history, and, especially, about the black community in Miami.

"When I'd started the project I'd planned to spend most of the season getting to know the kids who play the game. Why do they play? What pressures are on them, if any? Yet, after I returned from Orlando and began thumbing through my notes, I realized that in talking to the people most invested in Pop Warner football, I'd spent most of my time talking to adults." (p. xvi)

As the book opens the Liberty City Warriors, national Pop Warner champions in 1998, are preparing for the new season coached by a volunteer group of local men, Brian, Pete, and Anthony, guys who give up most of their free time coaching, organizing, and raising funds for the kids to play football. Twenty-five miles southwest is the home of Raul Campos, coach of the reigning Pop Warner national champions, the Palmetto Raiders. Campos, like the coaches of other teams in predominately white areas had reversed a long series of losing streaks by bringing in faster, more athletic, hungrier black players from around the Miami region, such as the neighboring town of West Perrine. His recruiting success was largely based on a combination of a winning tradition established early on in his tenure and an unabashed use of special perks for the kids: rides to games in specially-chartered coaches, home and away jerseys, steak dinners, special team letter jackets, and above all a very good chance of a week long trip to Disney World in Orlando for the Pop Warner national championships, all paid for by Campos and his friends in the construction industry. Campos' success at Palmetto helped accelerate the growing seriousness of youth league football in South Florida, with other teams joining in the competition to attract the best youth talent.

""Everyone wants to make it to the playoffs. Everyone wants to go to nationals. They're letting this get out of hand. Boy, one of these days, man, this shit is going to blow up and somebody's going to get shot. Watch."" Raul Campos (p. 145)

Miami is America's newest big city. It's spectacular growth over the last fifty years is primarily down to two events: the Cuban Revolution and the exponential spread of air conditioning. Air conditioning allowed the massive development that turned Miami into a sprawling metropolis. Before the Cuban Revolution Miami was a backwater city, a deeply segregated outpost of the Deep South. The black community, composed of migrants from other parts of the South and from English-speaking parts of the Carribbean, especially the Bahamas, was cut off from political power and influence and from economic advancement. Unlike in other parts of America, where black politicians began to take control of cities and a black middle class was growing quickly, these problems remained pronounced in Miami. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 would ultimately send over a million Cubans to South Florida, mostly members of the almost entirely white middle and upper classes. The Cuban exiles quickly seized power from the old Anglo ruling class of Miami and set about re-making Miami as the capital of Latin America. Following in their path came hundreds of thousands of poor immigrants from Latin America and the Carribbean islands, especially Haiti and Jamaica. The effect of this was to lock the long-settled African-American community into their existing neighborhoods and hold them back from economic and educational advancement. Unlike other cities in the South where blacks could move into other neighborhoods as whites left, the black community in Miami found itself competing for cheap housing with all the new immigrants, as well as for economic gains and education.

""I'll put this out for what it's worth: The influx of Cubans is what hurt us," Dunn says. "The gains the blacks were on their way to receiving were taken away...Being black in Miami is almost - not quite, but almost - like it was being black in America in the fifties and the sixties in America. We have second-class citizenship. Limited opportunities. Segregation in certain tiers of life, segregation in government. A lot of blacks don't see a place where they fit in down here." (Richard Dunn, p. 99)

This influx of Latinos, along with Miami's geographical location, brought a new major industry to Miami in the 1970's and 80's: drugs. As the southernmost port city in the United States Miami became the nation's pre-eminent center of drug trafficking. Although the major importation syndicates were in the hands of Colombians and Cuban exiles drugs made a huge impact on black Miami, especially with the invention of crack cocaine. Black drug gangs like the Boobie Boys and the John Does (so called because they had no official name) quickly expanded from selling crack in ghetto neighborhoods like Liberty City and Overtown to franchising operations throughout Florida and beyond. A soaring murder rate and widespread drug addiction, along with a flight of decent-paying blue-collar jobs following riots in the early 80's, helped make conditions in Liberty City even worse than before.

""It used to be pretty bad," recalls (the Warriors') Brian Johnson, who grew up on the same block as the leader of the John Does. "When it started you'd hear about someone getting shot and you'd say, 'Man, wow, someone got shot.' After a while, when gunshots went off and another person went down it was, like, not even news."" (p. 88)

The rise of the major drug gangs has had a profound effect on local football in Miami. The willingness of major players to bet tens of thousands on high school and youth league games adds further to the pressure on the young players, young men who are already often burdened with their families' unrealistic dreams that they too can one day ascend to the Promised Land of the NFL. Often, players will receive cash bonuses from gamblers after victories for playing well (this is also discussed in the fantastic Showtime documentary The Year of the Bull about high school football in Liberty City). In the book, this subtext is shown constantly by the crews of gang members hanging around the edges of Pop Warner games, smoking weed and placing bets. The most vivid example comes in Powell's description of Palmetto's playoff game against Goulds. The game is in overtime, the Raiders are driving towards the touchdown zone, seemingly in sight of certain victory, when suddenly shots are fired. The culprit turns out to be a gambler with a big stake on Goulds who, seeing his money slipping away, fires into the air, in an attempt to stop the game. Powell is particularly excellent at showing how all these external problems and expectations corrupt what should be an innocent time. He also shows how, even with these difficulties, football can be a very powerful force for good in the lives of kids who may have troubles at home and at school. For example, Coach Campos often knows more about the players he coaches, their thoughts and their feelings, than their families do. Just being part of a team, especially a successful one, can be very good for these kids' discipline and sense of self-worth.

If America sees black men at all, it sees them as stereotypes. The athlete, the drug dealer, and the rapper. The most famous rapper ever to come out of Miami is Luther Campbell, known throughout the city simply as Luke, the head of The 2 Live Crew. Luke played a crucial role in revitalizing youth league football in black Miami, helping found the Liberty City Warriors, and constantly supporting them with gifts of money and special philanthropic gestures. Perhaps no one else in the book explains so simply just what football means to people in his community:

""That's what we own...We own this game. I mean, you can take whatever you want to take - our land, our housing, our jobs, whatever. But we got our dignity and our pride. We might not have ever had any leader to lead us to the promised land, but at least we got our football. We own football."" (p. 19)

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