Antwaan Randle El caused quite a stir this week, when, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said, “If I could go back, I wouldn’t play football.” Randle El played nine years in The League, catching 370 passes, scoring 21 touchdowns, winning a Super Bowl, all while making millions of dollars. All of that, however, is trumped by the fact that the 5’10” Randle El’s body now aches. He forgets things, has headaches, and has trouble using the stairs. Antwaan Randle El is 36 years old.
As Randle El told his story, an interesting tidbit of information that many people may have forgotten, or never known in the first place, trickled out. He was a 14th-round pick by the Chicago Cubs coming out of Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Illinois. Knowing all he knows now about football, Randle El wishes he had chosen baseball. It’s not that easy.
If you are unfamiliar with Harvey, Illinois, it is a suburb of South Chicago. Harvey suffers from high levels of poverty, unemployment, and crime. The largest marijuana bust in Chicago’s history took place in Harvey in 2015. There have also been several large heroin busts. A third of its population falls below the poverty line. Over twenty-percent of the workforce is unemployed in Harvey.
As the United States as a collective nation begins to come to terms with the fact that the act of playing football leaves many of our heroes broken men before the age of 40, surely more young athletes will begin making their way back to America’s Pastime? That seems logical.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 19, 2016
Unfortunately, choosing between baseball and football is not a binary option. It becomes much easier for an athlete like Randle El to look back, and in hindsight, decide that maybe football wasn’t actually the right choice. For many young athletes growing up in an inner-city environment, football is the only choice, the only way out. Baseball? Not so much.
Let’s go back to Randle El’s high school. It’s very difficult to piece together the yearly record of Thornton the past few years. Box scores have only been sporadically uploaded to MaxPreps. The scores that have made their way online are often of the 11-0, 15-2, or 18-1 variety. Not a whole lot of winning has been done, but plenty of blowout losses have been suffered.
Do you think many of the high school’s best athletes are going to give up football to focus all their energy on baseball? Their baseball team is a joke, but their football team sends athletes off to college every year. On Randle El’s squad alone, two more players went onto reach the NFL, Napoleon Harris and Tai Streets.
Let’s move onto something that hits a little bit closer to home for me.
I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You may be surprised to learn that this ‘Burg is actually the capital of the Keystone State — not the more famous ‘Burgh out West or the City of Brotherly Love. Nope, Harrisburg is where all the action happens in PA. It is a city of just under 50,000, and one that has had its share of financial misfortunes. In 2011, Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy.
While all the fun bankruptcy stuff was going on, things were going swimmingly for me. I didn’t actually grow up in the city, but rather the lily-white suburbs. My family lived far from the poverty-stricken inner city of Harrisburg, but I did go to school there. The Catholic high school, Bishop McDevitt, sat right on the edge of the ghetto, a few blocks West of the city’s public high school. Every morning, I rode in on the bus, past scores of kids making their way up to Harrisburg. Very few of them carried books or backpacks. The dropout rate from Harrisburg High School is extremely high — less than 45-percent of students who enter as freshman walk the stage senior year.
Above is a picture from the Allison Hill neighborhood in Harrisburg. The neighborhood was once one of the nicer places to live in Harrisburg, back before the flight to the suburbs. Now, it is a dangerous, poverty-riddled neighborhood. Allison Hill is located just a few blocks from where I went to high school.
Does it look like the type of neighborhood that would have access to state-of-the-art, year-round indoor baseball facilities? How about an elite travel team? Not a chance.
Up the road from Allison Hill, at the high school, however, the Harrisburg Cougars play football on one of the nicest fields in the region. Their indoor training facilities would rival some small colleges. At the time the city was declaring bankruptcy, Harrisburg was paying its high-school football coach, a former NFL assistant, close to six figures. The Cougars also play basketball in a fancy gymnasium.
How about the baseball team? Well, they went 0-20 last year and play on a field without an outfield fence. Their infield is rocky and bumpy.
But somehow baseball is going to win athletes back from football? Again — it’s not that easy.
What about the next level — college. Many athletes choose their sport in high school based on their chances of moving onto the next level. Most know they will not be going pro, but getting a free education is a nice reward for years of dedication to the sport. The NCAA allows 85 scholarships for football; roughly 12 for baseball. An average college baseball roster is made up of 25-40 players. Do the math, playing college baseball is not free for everyone on the roster. Most top-level NCAA baseball programs can find ways, through grants and academic aid, to get their best players taken care of, but not all.
If you are a young athlete growing up in the inner city (whether he said it or not, this is the type of athlete Passan was referring to), will you choose baseball or football? One team has glistening facilities and routinely sends its alumni to the NCAA and NFL. The other goes 0-20 almost every year and plays on a neglected field. The choice is not actually all that hard.
The baseball vs. football debate cannot be settled as easily as white journalists wish it could. It’s very easy to tell a talented quarterback from the ghetto that he should actually choose baseball over football because in 20 years his body might hurt. He has only one shot at a college education, and football is more likely to give that to him than baseball. That quarterback is picking football nine times out of 10.
Baseball is far from being able to steal a significant number of athletes away from football. Strides have been made in recent years to build the infrastructure for inner city baseball, but with very little noticeable improvement. The Harrisburg RBI team regularly goes to the RBI World Series, but the high school team remains winless. Unless a serious top-down investment is made in baseball in the inner cities, concussions and broken bones will never be enough to deter the best athletes from choosing football over baseball.