Theirs are not problems that can be fixed on a baseball diamond or soccer field:
My mom was really young when she had me. She was 14 and my dad wasn't around.
I was never home when I was eight years old, because I was using drugs, and I had a lot of anger issues... I used to fight a lot.
My friends were in a gang. So I ended up being in a gang.... Going into my senior [year} I got caught with a firearm.
But voices like theirs helped persuade county officials to save a storied sports program for teenage boys who've landed on the wrong side of the law.
It helped me stay out of trouble, showed me how to communicate with people I didn't get along with... We talked things out, my family came to every game... my mom cried."
The young men I'm quoting — from interviews by researchers studying the program — are former inmates of Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu, the only correctional facility in the state whose sports teams compete against public and private high schools.
Its sports program inspired the 2006 movie "Gridiron Gang." In the film, juvenile delinquents put gang rivalries aside and find redemption on the football field. In real life, the sports program was threatened with closure this spring because Camp Kilpatrick is being torn down.
Researchers were tasked with finding out whether the sports league produced positive change that lasted. They examined the young inmates' school reports, criminal records and accounts of behavior problems.
But the teenagers' lives were so layered with dysfunction, statistics can't capture the value of sports as clearly as the words of players, now young men:
Kilpatrick gave me a lot of courage from playing the sports... I don't cuss as much as I used to. I don't drink as much as I used to.... I feel more happy with myself. All around, I haven't stolen, nothing... everything's just been going smooth sailing from here.
When you're lugging around a criminal record and trying to shake off years of chaos, life is hardly smooth sailing.
The sports study — which looked at Los Angeles County probation records for hundreds of youths — offers a troubling snapshot of young lives.
Many of the boys had gang associations. Most came from unstable homes or were in foster care. Nine in 10 had substance abuse issues; almost as many had mental health problems. Almost all were failing, acting out or not showing up for school. Two-thirds had been in trouble with the law before. Their most recent offenses included robberies, assaults and weapons violations.
The study was not able to prove that the athletes did better in the long term than youths who were not on the teams. But there was a clear improvement in school attendance and performance. However when it came to returning to crime, or recidivism, the athletes did better only for the first six months of freedom.
"Clearly, there's a positive impact," said Cal State L.A. professor Denise Herz, the research team leader. "But the key is, they go back into the same environment... without much support."
The interviews with former athletes described lives of constant upheaval, and explained how the sports teams filled gaps in their upbringing.
There was discipline there, where there was no discipline at home. The coaches... they worked with us, they tried to keep us motivated, I mean I still call them to this day.
To have that male figure around you that can give you a man's perspective, and to hear a man's voice. You know what I'm saying? It's priceless.
Does the Kilpatrick sports model inoculate young men against the lure of the streets? Certainly not. But it can clear vision muddied by history and teach important life skills.
Probation department officials recognize that. Last week, they announced that the sports program won't be disbanded but will move to the Challenger Memorial Youth Center camp in the Antelope Valley. Teams will resume play in their California Interscholastic Federation league this fall.
But sports isn't the only thing we ought to rely on. Even the athletes understand that:
Restore the drumming program, restore the poetry program. And also, like, some visual arts programs.
More counseling for a person's mental and emotional and spiritual health. Young fathers programs. How to treat women better.
I think [family involvement] should be a condition of probation.... Maybe some consequences for the parent if they don't participate in classes or something.
The lesson of the Kilpatrick study is that benefits are not so much tied to play on the field, as they are to the relationships that teens build with adults—and each other.
We're tired together. We're sweating together. We're right next to each other...you develop a camaraderie, a love, a respect.
The research suggests that self-respect grew when hard work led to success.
"Some of these kids haven't had any accomplishments," Herz said. "Why not have arts and drama programs to showcase them as well? If they feel good about themselves — 'I can do this. I'm worthy of this' — that makes a huge difference."
And for one athlete, a not-so-huge difference is more than enough.
While I was there I set me a couple goals. My main goal was to graduate high school, even though I was a year behind... and to get off probation. I got off probation without getting a violation and there was no problem.
I graduated high school. I went to prom.