Emelio Davis utters the words with a child-like conviction that makes it sound true: "I'm a wide receiver."
Sitting on his shiny BMX bicycle outside the Jim Ward Community Center in east Plantation, the lean 13-year-old points at his smaller friend, 11-year-old Nicholas Bromfield.
"Ask him," Emelio says. "I'm good."
Nicholas, who likes to ride on the handlebars of Emelio's bike, is preoccupied with his own dreams: "I'm a running back."
Outside of an occasional sandlot game, though, Nicholas is not a running back and Emelio is not a wide receiver. Neither can play in the Plantation Athletic League (PAL), the nonprofit corporation that monopolizes youth sports in the city. The boys can't get steady rides to practice or games, and the PAL fields -- located on the city's west side -- are too far away to ride bikes.
"I tried to play one year, but it was at 6, and my mom was late for work every day," Nicholas explains. "She couldn't take me anymore, so I had to quit."
Emelio points at the community center and says, "Go in there and tell the owner to make a football team. Because then all I got to do is walk across the street to play."
Nicholas climbs onto the handlebars, and Emelio peddles away, but their predicament hangs in the air like a broken promise. The boys' problem, unfortunately, is common among the many black children who live in their neighborhood, Park East. It's a shameful but open secret that PAL is largely segregated. Not by policy (PAL, of course, allows children of all races to play) but by circumstance, distance, and the league's failure to promote on the east side.
On a recent Saturday at Plantation's expansive Central Park, where most PAL sports are played, at least 70 boys ages 7 and 8 were competing in four soccer games. Only three of the children were black. It's the same in T-ball and not much better in basketball. Black participation is decent, thought still not high, in tackle football. The disparity starts at the top -- all nine PAL commissioners are white, as are all its listed corporate officers.
One cause for the lack of participation is that the two main PAL parks, Central and Sunset, are located across town, five and eight miles away, respectively, from Park East. But still, the numbers are so low that I thought there had to be another cause -- and to find it, all I had to do was follow the signs.
I'm talking about PAL signs, which are posted at major intersections to remind parents of registration dates. They are PAL's chief promotional tool; busy parents with hectic schedules rely on them. If you miss the signs, your kids will probably miss the opportunity to play ball.
During a recent drive around the city, I saw numerous PAL signs cluttering the roads of western and central Plantation, where parents living in predominantly white neighborhoods like Plantation Isles, Plantation Golf Estates, and Jacaranda Lakes would surely see them.
But there are no PAL signs east of the turnpike, where Emelio, Nicholas, and most of Plantation's black population live. Not on busy NW 46th Avenue, where the community center and Plantation Elementary School are located. Not on Broward Boulevard east of the turnpike or on State Road 7 on the city's eastern flank. None anywhere. Zero.
So I figure somebody must have made a conscious -- if not conscientious -- decision to keep the east side outside of the PAL loop. City officials should answer for the problem, since PAL controls several public parks and facilities subsidized by tax dollars. I asked Phil Goodrich, Plantation's park superintendent, who has worked extensively with PAL, about black representation in PAL and the lack of signs on the east side. "That would be your personal opinion that there is a problem," he told me. "I don't know that there is a problem."
Ah, denial, the crucial ingredient in the perpetuation of injustice. I called PAL Vice President Bill Bzdek, who conceded that all 11 permanent PAL signs in the city are west of the turnpike. He also admitted that blacks are underrepresented in PAL but insisted that sign placement has nothing to do with it.
"That's just where the signs have been traditionally," he explained. "And I think everyone sees those signs. People on the east side and people on the west side drive all over the city. People see them."