Green off the field
The alarm went off at 5 a.m. Careful not to wake his younger sister, he turned off his phone and slowly made his way across the room. He glanced to his right and took a long look at the rest of his roomates — his dad, sister and older brother. He picked up his heavily worn Reebok shoes and the hand-me-down backpack that once belonged to his older brother and headed for the basketball court.
This anonymous MVHS alumnus, who will be referred to as Leo in order to protect his identity, grew up in a challenging financial situation, something that he had come to terms with as he grew older.
“When I was little, I think my parents did a good job of hiding it,” Leo said. “As I’ve grown, I understand that, we were by no means in a good financial [position]. We had gone bankrupt when I was eight or nine and we had to live on welfare in a small apartment with five, six people in it. So it’s been that way for a long time.”
Leo watched his first NBA game on television when he was seven and immediately fell in love with the sport. Growing up, Leo studied superstars like LeBron James not just for their performance on the court, he says, but also how they overcame the adverse situations they grew up in.
“A lot of these guys started from the bottom income neighborhoods,” Leo said. “So they come out from these situations from a young age and they had to work to get to where they are today. And I look at that as a model of inspiration for myself.”
For Leo, basketball became a way to escape his home life.
“You go to [a] park, wherever you know there’s a [basketball] hoop, and bounce the ball,” Leo said. “The ball feels good. If your shots to go in, it takes your mind off things or you can just be there. No worries. Just shooting, improving, it feels good. It takes your mind off a lot of things.”
Spending hours on the court, often by himself, Leo decided to try out for the middle school basketball team in hopes that the coaches would recognize his skills. After arriving at the tryouts, however, he found out that most of the players had prior relationships with the coach due to a summer camp they had attended together.
“It bugs you,” Leo said. “It makes you want to work harder because you know you should be there with those kids and the fact that money is limiting makes you want to work even harder so that one day your talent can be recognized.”
Despite being one of the only players who wasn’t acquainted with the coach, Leo made the team. Because he couldn’t afford a custom sized jersey, his coach handed him the only jersey he could find — it was three times the size of his regular shirts and was clearly overworn with holes and tears — but Leo describes that moment as a turning point for him.
“It meant a lot to me,” Leo said. “I had that moment, like ‘wow, hard work does actually reward you.’”
Leo’s frustration towards his new teammates quickly subsided. When his team discovered that his family struggled to support his athletic career financially, they were quick to offer help to him whenever he needed it most.
“When I was on the team, [my teammates] loved to help me out,” Leo said. “If I couldn’t get a ride, guys offered to give me one. If I needed something, they were always there to help me out. When you’re in a team, it’s kind of like you’re brothers.”
Leo says that although his basketball dreams have been limited because of his financial situation, he’ll continue to work towards his goal.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Leo said. “If you want to work hard enough for something, you can achieve it.
The helping hand
The fact is that sports are expensive: players need to pay for the right apparel and equipment to play the game. In some cases, such as the MVHS Cheer team, students need to pay up to $3,000 for the entire season, including their customized outfit. Teams can also chip in money to support the festivities of their sports’ senior night. But like Leo and other financially disadvantaged students, the option to donate simply isn’t there — and often, the money required to play the sport isn’t present either.
For the students who are financially disadvantaged, there is another option, however. According to athletic director Nick Bonacorsi, students can come to him if they face financial problems and the school will help pay for their sports-related expenses.
“If the family identifies it or lets us know that that’s the issue, then we will typically fund the athlete out of an alternate account,” Bonacorsi said. “They don’t have to tell me some dramatic story. I want them to play so I’m willing to help them play.”
Bonacorsi recognizes that this conversation is a sensitive topic, so he doesn’t ask for details.
“We try and just honor that and do everything we can to help the kid,” Bonacorsi said. “As an athletic director, my goal is to try and get as many student athletes as possible involved in sports, and I don’t want money or financial situations to play a part.”
Living with financial hardship brings about some other differences too — athletes are unable to get private coaching or compete for a club team. However, there is an upside to that situation: becoming a multi-sport athlete. According to Bonacorsi, there are benefits to playing more than one sport which other one sport players don’t get.
“[Financial disadvantages are] a struggle,” Bonacorsi said. “It means less development. I think there’s definitely an argument to be made there. But at the same time, it also maybe opens them up to play three sports rather than focus on one. I think there are huge benefits of being a multi-sport athlete … [it gives] them different skill development.”
However, the athletic opportunities presented to someone in a high school setting are the same for students of differing financial statuses. Bonacorsi admits this, but it doesn’t deter him from the fact that athletes should be defined by their passion rather than their wealth. The effort that each athlete puts in day after day, no matter where they are on the social or economic ladder, is what Bonacorsi hopes to see when he comes to watch athletes’ meets and matches.
“I don’t look at student athletes and think ‘that one’s affluent. That one’s middle class,’” Bonacorsi said. “Regardless, I hope that our athletes have that passion intrinsically – to be there day in, day out. There’s an extrinsic element to that as well — the camaraderie of working with a team, developing relationships. I feel like the passion comes more from those two places than it comes from family life or financial status.”
Reflecting on finances
Senior Roann Acot and the rest of the MVHS swim team rely on $60 donations in the beginning of the season to maintain and improve their facility.. Donations pay for senior night; they pay for new lane lines; they pay for new flags. The donations add up to make the MVHS pool the way they want it.
“Our coach really pushes [us] to donate,” Acot said. “Obviously not everyone can donate money. You can’t force them to donate. [However,] the swim team is very big. If one person doesn’t donate, it’s not a big problem.”
Acot feels that even though the resource allocation is spread unevenly based on the maintenance cost associated with the sport, she wishes the swim team would have a larger room.
“Some teams get their team room, some teams not,” Acot said. “There’s definitely some unfairness. This swim team’s obviously a really big team. So is track. We all share the locker room. I wish we had our own team room like baseball does, but we don’t.”
However, Acot does realize that where spending goes at MVHS is not at her discretion. She does feel lucky for the things which the team does have.
“It’s hard when you don’t have control over something, especially when it comes to money,” Acot said. “[Our] school is very well-funded. There definitely have been some times where some teams have come onto our campus and sat down and ‘Oh my god, their pool is so nice. They had such a great view.’ So I am super thankful.”