Friday, August 17, 2001

Bridging the Gap

The Bridges Kick-off Classic brings public schools and private schools together -- on the field and off.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 17, 2001 at 4:00 AM

It's just a game. Football. Two teams take a ball and move it 100 yards. Simple, right? Sure, if it were a game of checkers. But it's not. It's a contact sport with bodies crashing together in a great train wreck on every play. It's also one heck of a way to meet others from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Meet them, beat on them, respect them, and earn their respect.

Maybe it's just a guy thing, but there's a certain amount of wisdom that can be gained by butting helmets. Nothing instills brotherhood like a banged-up body.

This is the point of the Bridges Kick-off Classic on Saturday, August 18th, at the Liberty Bowl. It's a double-header pitting private schools Christian Brothers High School (CBHS) and Memphis University School (MUS) against public high schools Melrose and Whitehaven, respectively. Bridges, a nonprofit organization geared toward crossing societal boundaries, sponsors the event along with Cricket Communications.

The match-up is obvious: private versus public on the field. There's also a breakfast that morning where players, coaches, and fans from all four schools will meet and eat. Seating is arranged so that the opponents' supporters will sit together at the event. The social meshing of players and fans is a tactic to get people to look at each other as human beings rather than as rich or poor, black or white.

The games are the first on all four teams' schedules, and they count. The winners start the season 1-0 against a perennial powerhouse. The losers, 0-1.

"It's just another game. You take them all in stride," says Maurice Harris, head coach of Whitehaven. That's easy for him to say. His team finished 10-2 in 2000, losing in the 2nd round of the TSSAA 5A state championship tournament. His squad returns all its skill players, and though his offensive line is young, it should be ready for MUS, which is coming off a relatively dismal (especially by MUS standards) 5-6 record, bowing out of the first round of last year's TSSAA Division 2 tourney.

That's probably why MUS coach Bobby Alston is more philosophical about the game. "This is what high school athletics are supposed to be about," he says. "We tend to lose sight of that a lot of times. Bottom line, the only reason for schools to be involved in sports is for educational reasons. Otherwise, we should all be playing club sports. If we get out there and compete and get along, then 15 or 20 years from now when we're trying to solve a common problem, it should carry over."

Harris agrees. He knows there's going to be a dynamic between teams that's not related to the score. "The public versus private, that's not a big concern of ours," he says. "But the black versus the white thing, that's a big concern. Because when [the players] get together and start talking with one another, they'll find there aren't that many differences between each other. That's the most important thing to me. If you haven't been exposed to something, you're afraid of it."

MUS is one of the region's most prestigious and expensive private schools. It's also predominantly white. Whitehaven High is -- in a twist of nominal irony -- the opposite. Say what you will about the order of things, there is very little chance that these students would meet each other outside sports.

"In the locker rooms, for the most part, sports do a better job on race relations than anywhere else," Alston says. "Now, sometimes when it gets outside the locker room, it's not as good. But inside the locker room people say things to one another and no one gets their feelings hurt. They make fun of each other; everyone can laugh at themselves.

"If we're not playing each other, it's sort of out of sight, out of mind. When you compete against each other, you form relationships and even if it's in competition, those relationships can start some types of communication and involvement."

Recent history to the contrary, MUS and Whitehaven have met many times in the past. "I think there is a long-standing rivalry between MUS and Whitehaven that goes back to the Sixties, when both teams were in the county league," Alston says. "Whitehaven was the county league power and every once in a while MUS would sneak up on them a little bit. Over the years, the TSSAA's posture with private schools has affected their relationship somewhat."

That posture separated league play between private and public schools, theoretically eliminating any potential advantages private schools might have in doling out scholarship money for athletes. The private schools contend that the money is financial aid based on need rather than ability. It doesn't matter who is right. The point is that the TSSAA took away one link between public and private schools -- the ability to meet on a field and butt heads. To maybe learn a thing or two from a game. The Bridges Classic brings that back, if only for a day.

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