Possible CPS strike puts college at risk for some

Marginal scholarship athletes in city, especially in football, need every game to impress recruiters

Growing up on a foreboding South Side block near Brainerd Park, Brooks College Prep senior running back Cleveland Clark considers every day a gift.

Not to mention a challenge.

"I know what type of neighborhood I live in so I do my best not to even be outside so I won't have the chance to get caught in anything negative,'' Clark said Wednesday. "I mostly go to school, go to practice, go to sleep."

Thinking about not going to school or practice because of a possible Chicago Teachers Union strike has created bouts of sleeplessness and anxiety for Clark, one of 11,000 Chicago Public Schools student-athletes whose futures could be affected by a walkout.

With the union expected to set a strike date as early as Thursday, CPS coaches and players have begun considering the collateral damage beyond missed academic and social time that potentially will alter lives too.

"This is one of the best teams we've had in years at Brooks and a strike could make us unable to showcase our team,'' Clark said. "It would be heartbreaking for our team -- and for me personally.''

No classes at CPS schools means no organized practice or games for fall sports teams, according to IHSA rules. Besides, 90 percent of CPS coaches also are CTU members so effectively they would be crossing the picket line if they attended any informal practices players have planned. IHSA assistant executive director Craig Anderson confirmed football teams need to play at least eight games to be eligible for the postseason. For the eight other team sports, six games are required.

"Football is unique because you can only play once a week so losing even one game could be tough (to make up),'' said Mickey Pruitt, the CPS football coordinator and former Bears linebacker. "This is an opportunity for kids to change their lives. The guys who are heavily recruited, this won't hurt them. But the guys on the borderline of Division II or III, well…''

Every canceled game would result in one fewer chance for players like Clark, a fringe Division I prospect, to impress college recruiters offering scholarships worth more than just free room, board and tuition. How do you quantify an escape an education represents to a kid who considers college his ticket to survival?

"My family sees me as the one to make it out so it's all riding on my senior year,'' said Clark, who lives with his parents, two sisters, niece and nephew. "My main dream is a scholarship.''

Teammate Avonte Mister, an outside linebacker with a 3.8 grade-point average, echoed Clark by expressing the feelings of so many peers who have yet to be recruited heavily -- or at all. They wonder. They worry. Kids living in an increasingly dangerous city have conditioned themselves to overcome fear. But a prolonged strike even temporarily taking away football induces an unfamiliar sense of dread.

"My family can't afford me going to college without a scholarship,'' said Mister, a team captain. "I need this season. Every game matters.''

Even in the context of contentious contract negotiations between CPS and union officials, every fall sport matters -- football, girls swimming, boys soccer, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls golf, girls tennis, girls volleyball and 16-inch softball. Sports can make the world bigger for kids and, in theory, the streets safer for everybody. Consider how much more free time thousands of CPS student-athletes will have if they can't practice. Pruitt shudders at the thought.

"Idle time is the most important thing we want to avoid,'' Pruitt said. "Even one week or three days, they will be affected. Where will all those kids channel that energy?''

When I asked Mister that question, he answered honestly -- and ominously.

"It would not be nice … I could see the city's murder rate going up,'' Mister said.

Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th, stopped short of predicting such bloodshed but sounded like the concerned parent he is. Burnett's son, Walter, plays cornerback at Young. Burnett believes athletics motivate his son to excel academically. Dad also likes that he has known how Walter has spent most of his time since starting two-a-day practices in preparation for this football season -- a season suddenly in danger of being interrupted.

"Everyone empathizes with the teachers, but a strike could have a personal effect on so many families,'' Burnett said. "I expect something is going to give because something has to give. The teachers don't want to be off work and the board doesn't want the teachers to strike. Hopefully they can compromise. If they're on strike, nobody wins.''

Everybody loses -- nobody more than aspiring college student-athletes like Clark and Mister who deserve better than to be deprived of such promising opportunities.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
CHICAGO

More