Sports Matter: Friday Night Lights Author Buzz Bissinger on Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership

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Buzz Bissinger is the author of Friday Night Lights. He is also a longtime contributing editor at Vanity Fair. This is an excerpt from his article on the non-profit organization Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership in Harlem, New York.


Jordany Baltazar’s journey from school to home is about eight blocks. It takes 15 minutes, maybe a little bit longer when snow and ice coat the mottled sidewalk and wind blows of the Harlem River. But it really isn’t very far for the 14-year-old. Except when the starting point is Frederick Douglass Academy at 148th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and the end point the Polo Grounds Towers. This is Harlem. Not the gentrified Harlem you read about, but Harlem of grime and grit rubbing up against the south Bronx.

“I’ve been scared many times,” Jordany says as he makes his way home. “There are many things that can happen. Any time you can be hurt.”

Jordany wants to get out of the towers. He wants to take his family with him. Once upon a time it was just a dream, the kind of dream that kids in the ‘hood often have at night while the sirens blast outside. But now it doesn’t seem so faraway. He has gone through a radical change the past several years, the horizons of life, once so narrow and mostly confined to Harlem, opening like a wide-angle lens.

Jordany is heading into tenth grade at Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It is a college preparatory school with Quaker roots, known for its academic excellence. Not so long ago he was a middle school kid at Frederick Douglass, a New York City public school that goes from sixth grade through high school. He didn’t do his homework and didn’t pay attention, liked hanging with the bad boys because the bad boys are often the most popular. But the summer before sixth grade, his mother insisted that he had to do something and didn’t want him to do it in the projects. She signed him up for a day camp program based at Frederick Douglass. He continued with it through middle school until he went off to Westtown. He finished his freshman year with a 95 in algebra, a 91 in French and an 89 in physics.

The reason for that has to do with that thing he still carries back and forth from Frederick Douglass Academy regardless of the stares:

A lacrosse stick.

A what?

In Harlem?

Jordany at first had no idea what it was or what to do with it. He knew nothing about the game of lacrosse or the program itself, a non-profit organization called Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership. But now he knows, just like dozens of others at Frederick Douglass know. All you have to do is ask him.

“If it wasn’t for Harlem Lacrosse, I would have been on the streets,” said Jordany. “I probably would have been in a gang.”

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Image: Eric Ogden

Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership is living proof of why sports matter in schools, a shocking number of which are dropping athletic programs because of budgetary constraints or school districts charging student athletes exorbitant fees. It is proof of why the program should be at every public school in New York City, and not just New York City but every city in the country where underprivileged kids are routinely hit the hardest. Because an essential element of Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership is that it is school-based.

Wrote Up2Us in a recent report:

“Sports programs are one of the most cost-effective activities that promote positive youth development; in fact, extracurricular activities comprise just 1 to 3 percent of school budgets while engaging 60 to 70 percent of students. Sports programs are also unique in their ability to impact health, educational and behavioral benefits on youth.”

The bottom line per the report: “Further cuts to sports programs and or increases in pay-to-play must cease or our society could face severe and costly consequences.”

Sports should be egalitarian. Sports should be available to all. Sports should not be based on income levels. The above paints a distressing picture. Is is easy to lose hope.

But then you see Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership.

You see tiny miracles every day big and small. You see middle school kids who cannot afford equipment now equipped without any cost to them. You meet students like Jordany Baltazar. You see pride. You see kids stepping up to the demands placed on them. You see kids become motivated to do well in school. You see a model that not only should be emulated everywhere.

It can be emulated everywhere.


For the full article by Buzz Bissingerand for more on Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership, click here and check out the video below.

If you’d like to donate to a team in need, head to donorschoose.org. The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation will fund 50 percent of denoted projects up to $1.5 million in donations to public and charter school sports teams in communities across the country if the team can earn the other half of the goal. Visit sportsmatter.org for more information.