A Legacy of Help for Young Athletes

by Mary Hrovat

Gary Sailes still remembers the high school physical education teacher who put together an ice hockey league in which he played as a teenager. Years ago, in Utica, New York, Joe Gilberty coached the players and worked to get them uniforms and time on the ice. Sailes, raised as one of four children in a single-parent home where he "knew poverty," honors the memory by carrying on the effort to reach young people in need of help and passing along to them the values he has found in sports throughout his life.

Sailes, an associate professor of kinesiology in the Department of Kinesiology in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation at Indiana University Bloomington, founded and helps run the Indiana Sports and Education Consortium. The consortium works with Indianapolis young people who are at risk, offering them opportunities to participate in sports and to receive life-skills training. Sailes describes the consortium as a loosely structured group of people who believe in the possibility of a positive future for inner-city youths and that the best way to reach them is through sports. The consortium has received support from a range of sponsors, including the Indianapolis Colts football team and the Indiana Pacers basketball team, which supply tickets to games and team gifts, and Nike, which has supplied T-shirts to participants in consortium programs. Sailes has also secured media support; radio stations WTLC and WHHH have supplied advertising spots, the Indianapolis Star and News and the Indianapolis Recorder have provided coverage and free advertising, and American Cablevision hosted Sailes on one of its shows in April 1995. The Lilly Endowment has made a $40,000 two-part grant to the consortium. The first part was earmarked for developing programs like a one-day convention held last year that was attended by three hundred inner-city kids and the Indianapolis Academic All-Star Camp. The second part of the grant will be used to create a research center at IUB for the study of the African American athlete.

Thirty Indianapolis high school athletes attended the All-Star Camp, which met weekly for ten weeks in a venue provided by the National Institute for Fitness and Sport. The purpose of the camp was to prepare the students for college. Sessions included work on Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) preparation, time management, relationships, and other academic and social skills. The participants, chosen by the consortium were inner-city students in their junior or senior years of high school who were players in good academic standing on their high school basketball teams, recommended by their coaches, and planning to attend college. (All of the students selected were African American, as the Lilly grant was given specifically to help inner-city African American students.) Participants have responded positively to the camp, reporting that they feel better prepared to succeed in college.

This training in life skills ties in with Sailes's work in the sociology of sport, which deals extensively with the African American athlete. He champions the rights of the African American athlete in college and university sports and educates African American athletes, especially males, about the true nature of professional sports as a career option. A career as a superstar in professional sports is a beguiling dream for young men who may feel they have few other opportunities and little help in making something of their lives, yet Sailes can cite statistics showing that professional sports offer this magic escape for only a tiny fraction of all athletes who play football or basketball at the high school level. Instead of encouraging the young people he works with to rely on dreams of superstardom, he helps athletes use their time at school wisely and get an education that will help them earn a good living. Sailes does not push tennis, his sport, as a profession. For some of the students he coaches, however, it can be a means of attending college and building a better future for themselves.

Sailes recalls being involved in many sports in his youth, but it was not until his years in graduate school that he got hooked on tennis through a required physical education course. He coached tennis at the university level for fifteen years and played tennis professionally on the Midwest Grand Prix circuit in the 1980s. Now, after arthroscopic surgery mended a problem knee, he has returned to the sport and hopes to be ranked in play this year by the American Tennis Association (ATA) and the the United States Tennis Association in doubles. He was ranked in the top ten in the country last year in doubles by the ATA and hopes to improve on that in 1997. In the spirit of R. Walter Johnson--mentor to Arthur Ashe and other African American tennis players--and of Ashe himself, who helped found the National Junior Tennis league, Sailes works hard to provide opportunities for young African American men and women in tennis. He serves as chairperson of the National Multi-Cultural Committee of the U.S. Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) and as Midwest Director for Junior Development for the ATA, the oldest African American sports organization in the country. He also coordinates and coaches at the Midwest Tennis Association (MID TAC) Junior Development Camp, held at IUB each summer.

The work Sailes does to promote tennis includes coaching for the ATA and scouting for the association's four-day tennis camp held annually at IUB and attended by approximately two dozen young African American tennis players. The camp is a "tune-up" for the MID TAC regional tournament, held immediately afterward. The camp costs participants (many of whom come from lower-income homes) only their room and board--approximately $60 for three nights. MID TAC supplies funds to pay for coaching staff and equipment. Sailes notes that a unique feature of the camp is that it provides "racial homogeneity" so that participants can feel comfortable interacting on the basis of who they really are rather than on the basis of their skin color. He talks of "inferiority anxiety" that clouds the interactions of people in racially mixed groups, an anxiety entirely absent in these camps, he explains. Feedback from participants has been positive, and there are plans to extend the camp to an entire week.

The factors that put a young person at risk, Sailes says, include being raised in a single-parent family, poverty, and previous criminal behavior. He describes his work as both intervention and prevention. Some youths he works with in Indianapolis, through the consortium, come from impoverished single-parent homes in bad neighborhoods. While many of these youths are not in trouble, they are in need of the love and support that will keep them out of trouble. Other young people he works with have already broken the law and need help in escaping destructive patterns. Sailes says some youths are harder to work with than others and that it can take longer to make a positive difference in some young people's lives. Despite these variations, he believes that any person who wants to learn and to change can change. "If there's interest and motivation, anybody can learn," Sailes states. "I don't give up on any kid."

Sports can help young people who are at risk simply by giving them something positive to do. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" is a cliché, but Sailes says that study after study proves that the adage is true: kids with nothing to do are more apt to get into trouble. With peer pressure--one of the hardest things to overcome, Sailes notes--sometimes pushing kids toward harmful activities, keeping them busy with an organized sport that they enjoy is a vital step toward helping them overcome negative factors. Furthermore, in learning to perform a skill and to perform it well, a young person grows in self-esteem and self-confidence. An organized sports program can also teach self-discipline and the art of interacting with others.

Sailes provides plenty of oppor-tunities for this type of social and per-sonal growth. He asks young tennis players to prepare lists of goals for themselves for the immediate future, the short-term, and the long-term, and encourages them to plan how to reach these goals. The Indiana Sports and Education Consortium also emphasizes social and academic skills that young people will need in college and on the job. In single-parent households and households at or near the poverty level, there is often not time for anything beyond getting through each day. Children may not learn how to organize their work, how to set tasks and complete them, or how to resolve differences with other people. It is vital for these young people to have someone teach them the organizational and conflict resolution skills they will need to successfully navigate the intricacies of life outside their homes. One of the most important things Sailes has to offer, though, goes beyond helping young people learn sports or develop coping skills: he loves and believes in the youths with whom he works, and this alone can be a powerful aid in protecting them from some of the negative factors in their lives.

Sailes can point to some heartwarming success stories. Some players he coaches in tennis are considering going pro with their sport; he cites the example of a fourteen-year-old girl who has a couple of options before her: becoming a professional tennis player or getting a tennis scholarship to help her through school so that she can become a lawyer. Sailes is also working with a young woman from a single-parent family that is struggling financially. The family moved to Indianapolis from Omaha expressly so the young woman could be coached by Sailes, who found some funding to help meet her expenses. She is an honor student at Brebeuf Preparatory School in Indianapolis, where she will be starting her senior year this fall. Her goals include getting a college degree, and she intends to try for a tennis scholarship to help her attend college if an academic scholarship is not available. Whether tennis turns out to be a livelihood or a means to attain the education necessary to secure a livelihood, proficiency in the sport can be a valuable asset. It can help youths who are at risk escape from the circumstances in which they find themselves and helps them create better futures for themselves.

Sailes sees plenty of work still to be done. There is a continuing need for more support for young players moving from the intermediate to the elite level, and both USPTA and MID TAC are working to enhance the coaching skills of minority coaches. As chair of USPTA's National Multi-Cultural Committee, Sailes is responsible for helping to identify sources of funding to train inner-city coaches. Besides extending the tennis camp held heat IUB, MID TAC plans to expand tournament play so that junior players would play a circuit, just like pros, competing in each city in the MID TAC. Sailes is involved in these plans and with efforts to recruit people in each city to provide food, housing, and transportation for the athletes as they travel the circuit.

In following the sport that he loves and using it to help young people in areas where he "saw the need," Sailes is a role model for the disadvantaged youths with whom he comes in contact. He is showing them that not only are there opportunities beyond the poverty they know now, but that it is possible for them to master a skill that enriches their lives in many ways, a skill they ultimately can share with others to improve their lives as well.

Back to the Table of Contents