Boxing Programs In Fight For Their Lives

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The Atlas Cops & Kids Boxing Club in East Flatbush is one of a very few surviving youth boxing programs in the city.

Photo by: Marc Fader

The Atlas Cops & Kids Boxing Club in East Flatbush is one of a very few surviving youth boxing programs in the city.

At the Atlas Cops & Kids Boxing Club in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, one April afternoon, Coach Pat Russo nodded his head in encouragement as the boys (and a handful of girls) jumped rope, "hit the mitts," and tightened up their footwork. The after-school rush had set in as dozens more young members streamed into the two-ring space, glancing at a list of posted rules as they passed.

"Tell her what the number one rule is," Coach Aureliano Sosa prompted 14-year-old Christopher Colbert. Colbert grinned and hiked his pants up past his belly button in an exaggerated gesture. "No sagging," he replied with a laugh. At Atlas, if a boy’s pants hang too low on his hips, it’s a 50 push-up offense. The second time, the number jumps to 100. But more than a list of strict rules adorn the gym’s walls. A glance around the corner reveals the middle school report card of a registered member: "92 percent average."

The structured, family-like environment of a boxing gym gets kids off the streets and under the guidance of local cops and volunteers, coaches say. They argue that the amateur sport has the potential to teach discipline, dedication, and self-confidence.

Yet despite the availability of anecdotes about the transformative power of boxing, little statistical evidence exists to back up these claims. Unconvinced by the benefits and doubtful of the value of the sport itself, youth development foundations and non-profits remain reluctant to extend their financial backing to boxing programs. Instead, they prefer recreational programs that also include a rigorous academic component and can guarantee upward social mobility.

As budgets have tightened in recent years for these youth empowerment advocates, the number of free boxing programs in New York City has considerably shrunk. With the shuttering of the Police Athletic League's gyms over the past three years, some boroughs are now entirely without a youth boxing ring.

Decline began with a fatal incident

Amateur boxing hasn’t always stood on such precarious footing. As far back as the 1920s, colleges in the United States participated in the popular sport and some awarded scholarships. In the 1930s, the New York City chapter of the Police Athletic League, known as "PAL," began to offer free boxing classes and came to operate programs in all five boroughs.

Fervor for pugilism began to decline, however, when a Wisconsin student named Charles Mohr died after a bout in the ring during the 1960 national championship. The autopsy remained inconclusive as to whether boxing had been the cause of Mohr’s death, or if he had in fact suffered an aneurysm. Either way, no one was willing to risk a repeat. The NCAA soon ditched boxing and most universities followed suit.

But in New York City, interest in PAL’s seven programs remained strong and the organization consistently allocated funds in its budget. Each year, some of the most agile and dedicated members went on to compete in the Golden Gloves, proudly donning their PAL shirts.

When Felix Urrutia came on board as director of PAL's New York City chapter in 2006, he had a new vision for the non-profit. Despite its longstanding history with the sport, there is no national obligation for a Police Athletic League chapter to offer boxing. In fact, only about a third of chapters across the country do, according to a national PAL spokesman. Urrutia told City Limits he thought the PAL had grown too large to remain viable and would lose its competitive edge if it didn’t streamline and scale back its programs. In doing so, he reduced its entire operating budget from $31 million to $25 million and, by 2009, punched boxing off the agenda.

"There wasn’t a single donor that wanted to give us funding for boxing," Urrutia (who recently announced plans to leave his post) said. "Not a government, not a foundation, not a corporation—nobody."

A thirst for evidence

After the financial crisis of 2008, most foundations also began telescoping their funds. No blanket donations, no "use it as you see fit" handouts. Donors wanted college-prep classes and job placement programs ready for youth leaving Rikers Island. They wanted truancy prevention. They wanted hard statistics and tangible evidence that programs were leading to upward social mobility.

Boxing’s stories of triumph are plentiful. Common is the lore of drug dealers and gang members gone straight after slipping on their first pair of gloves. But how many went to college? No one’s quite sure. What’s the average annual income a kid who used to box? Again, the numbers can neither bolster nor hinder the cause— they simply aren’t out there.

"Money is tight, but I also think that foundations do look for more outcome-based evidence that a program is working," said Carol Van Atten, the vice president of programs at the Charles Hayden Foundation, one of PAL’s contributors. "If you only have anecdotes these days, it doesn’t get you funding."

Van Atten also raised concerns about the ethos of the sport. "I suppose you could say that football and lacrosse are violent too," she said. "But boxing just sort of exemplifies violence. And I don’t think that’s something [that a child], particularly one in urban setting needs to be surrounded by."

An alternate view

The head coach of Atlas gym in Flatbush, Pat Russo, is a retired NYPD Sergeant from Staten Island. For several decades, he ran the NYC PAL’s boxing program. When PAL closed its doors on the sport, Russo continued to advocate for the young members, despite the unpopularity of the sport among other youth advocates.

"These are good kids," he said in an interview with City Limits. "These could be my kids."

Determined to fill the void left by PAL, Russo sought the financial backing of perhaps the one foundation who would support his vision, The Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation, started by a professional boxing trainer and analyst for ESPN. Together, Russo and Teddy Atlas formed a free youth program under the new moniker, Atlas Cops & Kids Boxing Club. In addition to the Flatbush gym (known as Flatbush Gardens), they also run one in Staten Island.

Interest in the program has spread through word of mouth and social media, and the two gyms have since drawn a combined total of more than 300 members, ages 10 to 21, many of whom practice daily. Still, kids in other boroughs, where Russo says there are no other youth boxing gyms, need an outlet. The older ones can travel between boroughs to get to his gym, Russo explains, but the younger kids don’t have the same option.

Over the past decade, objections to teaching the fighting arts have been common— but not universal. In social worker Whitney Wright’s 2006 study, "Keep It in the Ring: Using Boxing in Social Group Work with High-Risk and Offender Youth to Reduce Violence," Wright explores a counter perspective.

"For many group members who experience violence or emotional abuse in their communities, home, schools, or from the police, the safest time in their week is at the boxing gym," she writes. "Training to be a boxer taps their strengths and helps them learn more about themselves, gain confidence and find a way out of violence."

In the study, Wright uses examples from boxing groups in New York City and San Francisco that combine boxing training with group discussion. She finds that kids are able to discuss the challenges they encounter in their daily lives while in the gym environment. Wright also discovers that in these groups, kids "take the familiar experience of fighting they already identify with and sanction it, control it, structure it, refine it, harness it, give the youth ownership of it, and turn it into an art form to be valued and respected… by becoming boxers, they choose to keep it in the ring."

But the virtues of the boxing programs she studied differ considerably with the recreational programs that foundations do support.

Van Atten pointed to Row New York, a competitive rowing team with an academic element that empowers "young people from New York City’s under-resourced communities to pursue excellence in all facets of their lives," according to its mission statement. Row’s website notes that all graduates of the program have gone on to colleges like Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and NYU, and over half have received scholarships for academics or athletics.

Christopher Bell, a senior program officer at the Pinkerton Foundation, also emphasized the importance of having an academic focus. He added that while he personally had no bias against the sport, he believes about half of his colleagues likely would. "People just don’t think boxing is a legitimate way... for poor kids from poor families to make it in society," he said.

Ready for the next round

On the April afternoon at Flatbush Gardens, Russo looked approvingly out at the groups of young athletes. "People need to take the time to see the gym," he said. "Then they’ll realize these kids are not thugs."

In March of this year, as a response to the growing gang problem in Brownsville, a meeting at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office led to a local push to open a third Atlas Cops & Kids gym. Helping Hands Ministry agreed to donate a space. Then, after a column in the Daily News covered their fundraising efforts, Russo received a $10,000 donation from an old friend who had read the piece. They still needed to bridge a $15,000 gap before opening, yet Russo did not apply for grants from any other foundations, he told City Limits.

In early June, Cops & Kids met its financial target. The NYPD Boxing Team agreed to "pick up the tab for the remainder of the equipment," Russo explained. And the thumping heart of every boxing gym—the ring—has come from a rather unexpected source: the Police Athletic League of New York City. One of Urrutia’s final moves as director before resigning on May 24th was to donate the ring that PAL had in storage. The Brownsville gym is now slated to open in July.

Russo disagrees with youth development foundations about how to give kids the best chance to thrive in the world. But he shares with them a common purpose —and it isn’t to groom heavy-weight champions.

Mid-way through the April training session at Flatbush Gardens, coaches Russo, Sosa, Maria Venier and Queiro Bracero gathered the kids around the ring for a break. A cluster of punching bags swayed softly in a corner; the squeak of moving sneakers had paused. It was award certificate time. Once a month, the coaches give accolades for the "most motivated," "most improved," and "most determined" young boxers. As each young recipient stood to receive a prize, the others clapped, cheered and gave congratulatory smiles.

Then, gloves on – it was back to training.