Political Futbol

For the city, both money and employees are expendable when it comes to youth soccer

Make no mistake about it," wrote Doc Lawson, the director of the Houston Metropolitan Area Youth Soccer League, in a January 10 memo to his staff. "We are in a war and what is at stake is nothing less than our children's futures. I am fighting to recruit as many children as I can to fight this war. The enemy forces of POVERTY, DESPAIR, FEAR AND DARKNESS which manifest themselves in the form of Dope Dealers, Street Gangs, Pimps, Prostitutes and Alcoholics are already winning the war."

The overwrought rhetoric aside, it's hard to argue with Lawson's point: youth recreation programs help keep kids off the streets and promote healthy social skills.

But the casualties Lawson's war has been taking lately aren't the lowlifes and wastrels tempting Houston's youth. They're employees of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, more than 30 of whom were reprimanded, suspended or fired in December for allegedly failing to properly manage the city's year-old soccer program.

That was more than a bit ironic, considering the Lanier administration has consistently proclaimed the program to be a rousing success. The city claims more than 5,600 boys and girls signed up for the debut season last spring, with the number of registrants growing to 8,500 for the fall season. "We're proud of 8,500," says parks department spokeswoman Susan Christian.

There's really no other way the department could feel, at least publicly, since inner-city youth soccer is a high priority of the numbers-obsessed Bob Lanier. The mayor even devoted one of those self-glorifying campaign commercials he aired last fall to praising the virtues of the program.

Bill Smith, Lanier's parks director, certainly understands the need to ensure that the program looks good. As Smith wrote last May in a memo to the staff of his department's 55 community centers, who would handle the marketing of the program, "This program is the largest of its kind in the nation and must be very well coordinated to achieve the success intended by the mayor."

Christian says that even though youth soccer has caught on in a big way, many children were deprived of a chance to participate because community center employees didn't carry out their assigned duties. Thus, the disciplinary actions. "If you don't do your job, then you need to be accountable," she explains.

That's not how the workers see it. Henry Gray, who received a "final reprimand" from the city, has led a contingent of the punished to complain before City Council that they're being unfairly blamed for the program's shortcomings.

"They came in and just dumped the program on us," Gray says. "As far as marketing, they didn't give us anything."

The parks department did hold a couple of mandatory weekend coaching seminars for those who needed to learn the basics of the game, but its expectations were never clearly mapped out. That left the soccer office and its workers in the field constantly at odds, as program coordinator Carlos Galan acknowledged in a memo recounting registration problems at one park. "All in all," Galan wrote, "this E confirms (yet again) the poor communications between the community centers and the central office."

The root of the problem, according to sources in the parks department's central office, is Smith's damn-the-cost bid to instantly create a showcase program for Lanier and further feather the mayor's cap before he leaves office. To accomplish that goal, sources say, registration figures have been inflated to cover the program's poor performance. "If they're telling you [they had 8,500 kids], they're lying," says a parks employee who works with the program.

Pinning down the actual numbers is tricky. A request by the Press for registration documents from the city produced no proof, and further requests for a breakdown of registration by community centers elicited a handwritten list. The records in the soccer office are computerized, says Christian, but the computer was said to be down when the Press asked for a printout.

If the numbers were calculated by counting the names on registration sheets, they likely would be misleading. Many kids, enticed by free uniforms and shoes which they either had to give back or which never materialized at all, signed up for the program but immediately dropped out. And under pressure from Smith to generate long lists, several community center employees filled out bogus registration forms and turned them in, skewing the numbers even more, according to one parks administrator.

Perhaps typical was the result noted by soccer employee Rudy Rodriguez in a May 1995 memo. "At this time, the list of soccer players from Eastwood Park were 39," Rodriguez wrote. "Only 12 kids have decided to play." The handwritten city list shows 85 registrants at Eastwood for last spring.

"They didn't care if the kids stayed in the program or not," says a parks department source. "They just wanted to say, 'We had 10,000 kids.' " The actual number of participants, the source figures, is about half of the parks department's figure.

Doc Lawson, a former pro player who was recruited by Smith to duplicate the success of a similar program he launched in Dallas, addressed the issue in his January memo. "Some people have made the comment that the Recreation Program (Soccer) is nothing but a political numbers game," Lawson wrote before diving headlong into his take-no-prisoners exhortation to subordinates.

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