DISADVANTAGE: Home field didn't help Cabot this year.
Little Rock Central High School has had a couple of good years on the football field — back-to-back state championships in the state’s largest enrollment classification.
But Tiger fans still grumbled about a lingering aspect of the seasons. They don’t like the fact that the Tigers have to play a non-conference opponent, the Cabot Panthers, each year at Cabot, rather than alternating home fields.
Next year will be the fourth consecutive year Central journeys to Cabot. The reason is simple: money for Central’s tiny football budget. But fans have long suspected, right or wrong, that race plays a role.
Eliza Borne, editor of The Tiger, Central’s newspaper, is typical.
She said, “The word in the halls was that Cabot would not play a game in downtown Little Rock because they would have no fan support.” She notes that Cabot — the city, high school students, players, band and spirit groups — are almost entirely white. Central, like the Little Rock School District, is majority black and located in a predominantly black neighborhood.
Says Borne, “They are scared of our so-called ’hood, when in reality football games at Quigley Stadium are safe events with plenty of security and tons of school spirit. I think it’s outrageous that we should have to go all the way to Cabot when it is our home game and that race is even an issue now.”
Cabot officials insist that race is not an issue. Athletic Director Johnny White says Cabot has always tried to pack its home schedule with as many games as possible and used a money guarantee to do it before Central came along. Three years ago, Tiger head coach Bernie Cox said he gladly struck a deal to play at Cabot every year for $2,500 a game. The Central football team pocketed the proceeds, where the home football gate in Little Rock goes to the school district.
Cox says the $2,500 is more than half the $4,500 the football team gets from the school district for football equipment and other costs. “When someone offers me $2,500 to play 25 to 30 miles away, I’m going to do it.”
While Cox and Cabot officials insist the deal is strictly about money, cultural issues aren’t far below the surface. Mike Malham, the Cabot head football coach, acknowledges there’s a reluctance in some quarters in Cabot to go to Quigley Stadium in Little Rock because “in the past there have been problems down there. We don’t have problems out here.” He says the perceptions of problems stem mostly from some highly publicized incidents in the early 1980s, but “our people didn’t really want to go there.”
Cabot’s White takes pains to downplay any racial angle and says he’d be happy to play at Quigley, “a great stadium with a great tradition.”
White’s district has suffered in years past with perceptions that it is home to racists. Publicity about white supremacist students a number of years ago didn’t help. To improve its image, Cabot has opened its doors to statewide competition in a number of sports, White said.
White and Malham aren’t prepared to declare they’d play Central in Little Rock after the two-year contract expires next year. Financially and competitively, White says, Cabot would be better off seeking another team willing to play in Cabot for a guarantee.
There will be pressure for Central to change the arrangement. Johnny Johnson, the Little Rock School District’s athletic director, makes it clear he’s not happy about the separate deal benefiting Central football. The led him to wring another $500 from Cabot this year for the school district, on top of the $2,500 for Central.
School Board member Baker Kurrus is another who doesn’t approve of the annual road trips. For one thing, he thinks Central is selling itself cheaply. Cabot draws some 6,500 fans when weather is good for teams like Central. White, Cabot’s athletic director, says that produces only $8,500 or $9,500, before expenses, because of low ticket prices.
But it’s about more than money to Kurrus. “If they want to play us they need to play us home and home. We don’t have to go begging for a football game.”
Kurrus said he’d talked to some black parents about the issue while watching Central beat Cabot this year and they weren’t happy about it. “I think it is very detrimental for relationships between our communities and it leaves a perception that is grossly incorrect,” Kurrus said.
Even Little Rock’s athletic director Johnson defends Cabot against the perceptions. “The perception that Cabot won’t come to Quigley is the wrong perception. If Central quit playing, they’d just pick up another team.”
Outsiders, unburdened by facts, often see it differently. There was a mini-controversy, fueled by talk on an urban radio station, when the Central High band didn’t play at Cabot this year. It’s a “show” band, with high-stepping drum majors and dance routines reminiscent of predominantly black college bands. Fans wondered if race was a factor. Cabot officials say it has a standing policy not to allow visiting bands to perform at halftime because an overlong program once kept Cabot’s strong band off the field at half. Even so, Central has been allowed to perform every other year (including last year) as if it were a Central home game. Cabot’s White says the band has been a hit with Cabot fans.
There’s no greater defender of both the safety of Quigley and the deal with Cabot than Tiger coach Cox. “My 82-year-old father comes to every game and parks four or five blocks away from the stadium and doesn’t have any problem,” Cox says. “But with more than $200 million coming into the school district, we’re due more than $4,500 to run a football program.” Cox is particularly rankled that all five district high schools get identical budgets, though Central has far more football players.
Kurrus agrees that there are “a lot of inequities and things that aren’t fair about what’s going on,” but the side arrangement with Cabot “is not a fix for anything.”
There’s a “marvelous atmosphere” in Cabot, he says, “but it’s not in the long-term best interest of our school district to continue that. We need to analyze the totality of our athletic circumstances and come up with a solution for the whole thing.”