Survivor: Friday Night Football? 

Prep athletes want a public forum, parents want to see their kids play, people want safe local activities -- yet rowdy fans may destroy it all.

As football practice ends at Oakland Technical High School, it's past 6:30. The sun has dropped behind the bleachers, and the tired players walk slowly off the artificial turf. As they head for the locker room, the coaches point senior Clourse Hardy in a visitor's direction. The player walks over, helmet in hand, his head cocked to the side. He's apprehensive. Reporters don't usually ask for him.

Marshawn Lynch and Virdell Larkins are the stars of this team. They're the ones who do the interviews, get flown out to the big-time colleges, and appear on football recruiting Web sites. "This is their team," Hardy says. "I'm just a role player."

His modesty is refreshing. But he's looking for a football scholarship, too. It's just been harder to find. At 5'9, Hardy is an undersized linebacker who hopes to make the jump to strong safety at the college level -- if someone would give him a chance. He never knows what scouts are watching or what might catch their attention. Maybe it will be his work rate. Maybe his anticipation. He doesn't know. All he can do is play his best.

But that's been a problem lately. Two of Oakland Tech's recent games have been called off because of threats of violence. On September 5, Berkeley High canceled its match-up with the school after hearing rumors that adults from rival neighborhoods were planning to fight at the game. Then, on October 17, the Oakland Tech-Skyline game was stopped just before halftime after a horde of fans rushed the gate and several fights broke out in the crowd. All accounts place the blame for both cancellations on adult spectators, not kids.

Hardy is disappointed, but not surprised. He wonders if it might be better simply to close the games to the public. Oakland breeds that sort of pessimism. On the other hand, were high school football games to become no-spectators events, some kids might be less inclined to come out for the team -- being cheered on by your peers is at least part of the game's thrill, especially for a solid team like Tech.

Anyway, that would mean giving up. Friday night games were intended as a source of pride for Oakland Tech and the city's other five high schools. When voters passed a $303 million bond issue in 2000, the Oakland Unified School District spent nearly $10 million of it fitting several high school fields -- including Tech's -- with new synthetic turf and lights, says Tim White, the district's assistant superintendent of facilities. The games were supposed to be community-building events and showcases for local athletic talent.

But good intentions only go so far. Ensuring a safe atmosphere at these events is challenging and costly. At the current levels, staffing games with school security and Oakland cops costs nearly $40,000 per season. Weighing this expense alongside the reality of a budget crunch, the district originally had planned on canceling all home games this year. Officials managed to find the extra money in their student activities budget. That wasn't enough, as the October 17 game between Tech and Skyline proved. The game kicked off with nine security officers and six Oakland police officers in attendance, and things still got out of hand. By the time the melee ended, 25 Oakland police officers were on the scene.

At a meeting of the Oakland Athletic League two weeks ago, the proceedings were dominated by debate over the crisis. Lieutenant Howard Jordan, who manages the Oakland Police Department's presence in local schools, recommended the league cancel the remainder of the season's night games. He went so far as to encourage the OAL to hold games at 10 o'clock on Saturday mornings instead. His pragmatism, however, was matched by the idealism of the gathered high school principals and coaches -- folks who believe in the power of sports to unite people. "How are we going to change the culture of the community if we don't give people a chance?" asked Castlemont High principal Debbra Lindo, whose East Oakland school has had three night games rescheduled as afternoon games because of safety concerns. "Our parents right now are getting excited about night games in Oakland. It's a beautiful thing."

Skyline principal Amy Hansen agreed. "We want to go forward," she said. "Our kids deserve it. I want to give our kids the opportunity to do it."

Other East Bay schools are facing similar problems. Last winter, school officials suspended a basketball game between Berkeley High and Hercules when a fight erupted in the stands and spilled out onto the floor. Nearly two hundred people were involved. When the same two teams met in the second round of the Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League playoffs, Berkeley High held the game at 4 p.m. and closed it to the public.

The initial brawl, says ACCAL commissioner Bill Jones, prompted the league to increase security and conduct surveillance outside basketball and football games. That league has also changed the start times of some games. El Cerrito High has decided to play fewer night games because of security concerns. And the league switched all Halloween night games to the afternoon because there was not enough security available. Jones is quick to mention, though, that rarely are the players and students the cause of trouble. "Administrators feel they can control their own students and parents," he says. "Their concern is the outside community."

Oakland Tech can relate.

At the center of the recent debate is the role high school sports play in low-income communities. With daily headlines trumpeting drug busts and violence, the successes of local prep football and basketball teams are something positive. And with a shortage of constructive things to do in the Oakland flats at night -- especially organized, safe events -- these games become the place to be. Such was the case on October 17. Because Castlemont High had moved its game to 3:30 p.m., the Oakland Tech-Skyline match was the only show in town. And the town showed up.

"This is the type of game we had hoped for," said Oakland Athletic League director Jerry Luzar. It was sold out. It matched two strong programs. There were college scouts in attendance. Oakland Tech made more than $10,000 in ticket sales and concessions. It was just about perfect -- until it wasn't.

In a strapped school district within a city with an overworked police force, the easiest response would be simply to turn out the lights and move the games to the quiet sterility of Saturday mornings. The other option would be to recognize the importance of these matches for the local community and somehow make them work. At the end of the recent OAL meeting, league officials unanimously voted to maintain the current schedule, which calls for two night games on Friday, November 14, and the possibility of night playoff games the following week. Score one for idealism.

"We've wanted night games for a long time," says Oakland Tech assistant principal Marty Price. But he's realistic about the potential for trouble. "The whole idea that schools in urban settings are separate from the problems of urban settings is ridiculous," he says.

Before the upcoming Friday night games, schools officials intend to revamp game-management plans to ensure better communication between police and school security officers, keep closer track of advance ticket sales, and make the cops more visible at the entrance gates. League officials hope these actions will mean a safer atmosphere for families, fans, and scouts. Lt. Jordan has also recommended putting an additional Oakland cop at each league game, but since that requires extra cash the district lacks, officials have yet to commit.

So where does all this drama, debate, and planning leave a player like Oakland Tech's Clourse Hardy? In pretty much the same place. He's still a 5'9 linebacker hoping to impress any college scouts that might be watching. And he's still a seventeen-year-old from North Oakland with no control over the violence of his city's neighborhoods. "When recruiters come to see #25 or #3 play, they sometimes notice #77," says league director Luzar. "That's the way it works."

And that's what this role player hopes for: that big play, that scout's eye, that scholarship, that ticket to the good life. But mainly he just loves to play football. If that means dousing the fancy new lights, and telling the fans to stay home, then so be it.

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