CITY HALL – Twenty-First Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad hopes to cut crime by bringing back a late-night basketball program that attracted more than 300 young people in the early 1990s.
On Friday, Muhammad introduced a bill calling for the re-establishment of a Midnight Basketball League in St. Louis. The aldermanic Public Safety Committee will hold a hearing on the bill at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Muhammad’s proposal calls for the city Division of Recreation to operate the league at city recreational centers for youths and men ages 14-29. Muhammad anticipates the program would operate from about 7 p.m. to 11:30 or midnight. The young people would play on teams according to age.
Muhammad said he didn’t know how much the program might cost, but estimated it would be about $300,000 a year.
With the enthusiastic support of then-mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., St. Louis became one of several cities around the country to offer the late-night program as a way to lure people away from a life of crime. Rather than ages 14-29, as Muhammad proposes, the earlier program was for ages 14 through 19 and ran through the week.
“It was anyone that was interested in playing the sport,” Muhammad said. “It was a mixture of at-risk people and people who wanted to play basketball.”
Bosley had high praise for the program, especially in an Op-Ed article he wrote for the June 19, 1995, edition of the Post-Dispatch.
“Midnight Basketball has had a tremendous return on the investment,” Bosley wrote. “In 1993, we started the program with $50,000. We took 160 young at-risk males off the street during peak hours for crime and gave them a positive recreational outlet.”
“The hook is basketball, but the substance of the program is education and employment,” he explained.
The second year, about 300 young men participated, Bosley wrote. Jobs were found for almost 60 percent of participants, and 27 percent returned to college. The program expanded to include women.
Bosley mentioned a man he called “Joe” who spent 4½ months in the city’s Medium Security Institution but turned his life around through his participation in Midnight Basketball.
The program ended amid allegations of missing money and outright theft. One city employee was accused of taking $400 for the taxes on a new van, $500 for a trip to visit a friend in Alabama and $1,600 to cover the cost of a nonexistent conference.
Meanwhile, conservative commentators criticized such programs throughout the country as wasteful.
Today, an organization called the Association of Midnight Basketball Programs Inc. in Bay Point, Calif., carries on the mission with chapters in 24 cities throughout the country, down from about 50 in the 1990s and early 2000s. The group’s website attributed the decrease to drops in funding and changes in local leadership.
Bosley said he wouldn’t comment on the idea until he could meet with Muhammad. Muhammad said Sunday he hadn’t yet had a change to talk with Bosley.
“I’ve always known about the program,” Muhammad said. But more recently, he did research that made him want to do something about it. He’s been in touch with the national organization.