By José Umaña
BLADENSBURG – Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Coordinating Supervisor Earl Hawkins accused the growing Hispanic/Latino community in the city of Bladensburg as one of the key reasons why the area’s local high school had to cancel their varsity football program for this season.
When asked about football’s diminishing interest with youth, Hawkins said that low turnouts to the Bladensburg High School’s varsity football team tryouts were caused by the lack of interest of Latino student body and growing demographic changes in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“(Bladensburg) has a large Hispanic population and a lot of those student-athletes participate in soccer and in other sports and they do not participate necessarily in football,” Hawkins said on Sept. 1. “…I do not think it is by a lack of interest in sports in general; it is lack of interest in the sport of football because they (Latino students) do not play our sport as much as our students do it or they have not been exposed to it.”
His comments have upset members of the Bladensburg High School community, where their Hispanic/Latino student population accounted more than 66 percent of the school’s enrollment last year according to Maryland State Department of Education.
More than 10 players on the Mustangs junior varsity team roster are Latino, including captain and two-way lineman Hernan Rodriguez, whose family originate from Nicaragua. When hearing Hawkins’ comments, the senior said he felt mixed emotions about the comments.
“I would not blame the Hispanic community,” Rodriguez said. “It is a very diverse school so you just cannot say that an influx of this race or ethnicity caused the team to fall off.”
Head Coach Byron Westbrook called Hawkins’ comments “incorrect information” while confirming that the 35-man JV team has players of different ethnicities and races.
“Just because the Latino population like soccer as their initial sport, that does not mean they are not interested in football,” Westbrook said. “Regardless of the majority of the population, all kids of any race, creed and color are invited to come. We do not discriminate against any populations here so I think that is incorrect.”
Stereotyping a community
According to recent census data, Latinos make up 18.5 percent of the county’s population. Nationally, the Spanish-speaking population is no stranger to the sport, with an ESPN Sports Poll finding 25 million Hispanics in the U.S. identify themselves as “NFL fans.” The growing demographics in the county also suggest Latinos are likely to be participating in football.
However, Hawkins stated that there are no travel football teams in the Bladensburg area to expose children of any race at a young age, leaving them unexposed to the sport while claiming there are “more soccer” programs. When questioned, he could not provide evidence of his claims.
“The numbers in football are struggling (in Bladensburg),” Hawkins said. “They no longer have the amount of football players that they used to have while the numbers in soccer are growing.”
There are four nearby youth football clubs, two of which are affiliated with USA Football, the governing body for amateur football in the U.S. proving that Hawkins’ statement on youth leagues was erroneous.
Both Landover Seminoles and KCP Dolphins confirmed that their children’s programs, ranging from 3-13 year-olds, currently have many Latino players in several age groups.
Dolphins Commissioner Eugene Harris and Coach Antonio Barr said many Latino children try out after seeing their practices or games at Columbia Park.
“It was not hard for them to learn the sport as the majority of (Latino players) understand team concepts at an early age,” Harris said. “This is our second year as the KCP Dolphins, and we had more kids overall trying out this year than last year, and we have not seen a drop (in interest).”
Mexican American and team linebacker Junior Marquez said he is used to statements like Hawkins’ as he dealt with similar remarks during his time with the PG Stags youth football team. However, his desire to play the sport outweighs their words.
“It should not matter where I am from when I want to play,” Marquez said. “I don’t really care to be honest on what he said. I grew up here, so I know how it is. Not everyone says that or says it so openly like that, but since we are Latinos, they think our sport is just soccer…but it depends on how each Latino feels.”
Brenda Rodriguez, Hernan’s mother, said her son was always interested in the American sport over soccer. She recalled taking him to play youth football and at times being the only Latino player on the team. He would tell his mother that he was “the minority in this sport” but took it in stride, she said.
“He would die for this sport and this team,” Rodriguez said.
Hernandez is widely regarded as the most experienced player on the team, senior safety Daryn Boden said. He believes his teammates would not welcome Hawkins comments, calling them a slight to their Latino brethren and “disrespectful.”
For Hernandez, the focus should not be on who caused the cancellation but bringing up school spirit to support the program moving forward.
“There has always been a stigma around Blade that the football team is trash, people follow that and make it a big deal. And nobody tries to help the team,” Hernandez said. “…There is a mentality that there is no school pride and people are too cool to get out of their comfort zone and support the team.”
Two other area schools with higher Latino populations, High Point and Northwestern, both have a JV and varsity football teams. Eleanor Roosevelt Head Coach Thomas Green said the cancellation should be used as a learning experience and not a sign that the sport is losing interest.
Instead of fearing football’s death and accusing groups of people, Green recommended county officials and fellow coaches study how their counterparts in other sports, like lacrosse and rugby, recruit minority students to participate.
“If you look at High Point High School, they have the highest Latino population in the county, and they have both a JV and a varsity (team), so I do not want to put it on that,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, they get it back to together and get them back in the fold. They have some good athletes in Bladensburg, and I would like to see them back playing football.”
This story is a part of a series.