Early one Sunday morning in 2013, John Fish and I met in the heart of the city to talk about a big athletic dream he was itching to pursue.
It had nothing to do with opaque national committees, or international competitions, or velodromes. We were at White Stadium, the once-legendary high school stadium in Franklin Park that the Suffolk Construction magnate was determined to transform.
The old stadium, home of many of the city’s high school football teams, was a beautiful dump. Its locker rooms had been unusable for ages. A fire 15 years earlier had seriously damaged the grandstand. The field was behind a padlock, guaranteeing almost no public access to the place.
Indeed, even its ownership was obscure. The school department assumed for decades that it held title to the property, but it actually belonged to the George Robert White Foundation, an ancient nonprofit named for a pharmaceutical magnate from the last century that funds city projects.
Fish’s idea was ambitious. He wanted to restore the football stadium and track, eventually adding facilities for other sports. A separate structure would include classrooms for after-school tutoring, which is at the heart of the Boston Scholar Athletes program that Fish has spearheaded for six years now.
The White Stadium project eventually stalled out. There wasn’t any one reason. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who strongly supported it, left office before it could win final approval. Neighbors had concerns, mostly about parking and access. Marty Walsh likes the idea in principle but chokes on the potential price tag, which could run into tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the Olympic project came to consume Fish’s time and energy. Once a priority, White Stadium became an afterthought.
But here’s the thing: the young people of this city still desperately need what a renovated White Stadium could give them. This project deserves to be revived, with real support and momentum. In the wake of the Olympics fiasco, it’s one of the best ideas Walsh and Fish could embrace.
The Boston Scholar Athletes program was started in the wake of a Globe series by Bob Hohler detailing the lousy facilities for high school athletes in the city. Those conditions demonstrably decrease participation in sports, which is far lower in city high schools than in the suburbs. More important, they make a statement that we really don’t care about high school sports or the people who play them.
The BSA, which Fish has described as an academic program disguised as an athletic program, uses afterschool tutoring to help students stay eligible and active in sports and prepare for college. It’s been credited with boosting grades, test scores, and college admissions among participants. Fish, who speaks eloquently about how his involvement in sports helped him to overcome dyslexia and develop the confidence to succeed in business, has spent $6 million of his own money on the program, bolstered by $10 million in private donations.
White Stadium sits at the nexus of several Boston neighborhoods — Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale. It is a close neighbor of Bowdoin-Geneva, which would profit tremendously from enhanced athletic and afterschool programs.
I asked Fish this week about reviving the stadium project. He said he remains passionate about the project, though he chose not to speak about it at length. The Walsh administration is open to the idea as well, though they believe it will take substantial private investment to create the kind of facility Fish envisions.
There has been a lot of speculation that the Olympics bid cratered because Boston isn’t willing to embrace grand ideas. I think there are different ways to think big. Turning White Stadium into the jewel it was meant to be is a way to do something big for some of the people in this city who most need it.