With the start of the new school year this week in Alhambra, the state’s education budget crisis will be felt from the library to band practice to the playing field. At Mark Keppel parents and students have been clamoring about a team falling victim, but it’s not football or baseball. It’s the racquet sport where players swat a shuttlecock over a net: badminton. Considering the district has cut $45 million in the last two years and will cut more than $10 million by the 2011-12 school year, badminton would seem to be a reasonable choice to eliminate. After all, few schools field a team and even a former state rules commissioner conceded it is often considered a “namsy pamsy backyard sport.” But at Mark Keppel, where the student body is 70 percent Asian, badminton is serious business.
Keppel fields one of the top coed programs in the country and has won 10 state championships. So last spring, when letters were sent home saying that badminton had been cut, parents and players got upset. And then they started to organize. “This is Asian community,” Johnny Liew, whose 16-year-old daughter plays for the Keppel team, said. “What Asian people are going to play? Basketball too short. Football too skinny.” Liew laughed as he delivered the line, but he meant it when he said badminton is just right. A building contractor who grew up playing the racquet sport in his native Malaysia, he had hardly gone to a school meeting before last spring. But Liew said he was determined to preserve his daughter’s opportunity to play this sport. “I do all my effort to go to the principal, if not I go to the board, if not I go higher up. I will fight,” he said.
Rumors quickly circulated. “People said they were going to cancel it because it’s not an American sport,” said Kenneth Hui, a sophomore who has represented the United States at the Pan American games. “I was kind of shocked because it’s one of Keppel’s best sports and they still want to cancel it.” The athletic director provided other reasons: the Alhambra Unified School District had to reduce badminton because of the budget cuts, that the California Interscholastic Federation was providing less support, and that too few local schools supported teams.
Nationwide badminton is near the bottom of the popularity list and only recognized in nine states. Even in California, which has more players than any other state (nearly 10,000), the sport is near the lowest in team participation, on par with golf and lacrosse. But in the Asian countries from which many of the parents in the western San Gabriel Valley come — particularly China, Malaysia, and Indonesia — badminton, an Olympic sport since 1992, is a source of national pride.
Johnny Liew’s daughter, Alice, was also determined not to let her favorite sport go without a fight. She went home and wrote a call to action on a Facebook page she had just begun: “Save High School Badminton in California.” Within days, 1,000 students from schools across the state had joined the page, and they began to strategize how to get parents involved, visit school board meetings, and draft petitions. Some students wrote in with concerns, like Lichen Zheng, who said that her parents would go to the school board meeting, “but they don’t speak English.”
Last May, Mark Keppel’s principal, Grace Love, sent a new letter out to parents of players, granting badminton a reprieve. “We have revisited the factors that precipitated the decision,” she wrote. “We find that in terms of the level of participation, badminton falls in the mid-range of the overall sports program, having fewer players than some sports, yet more than others.” The varsity team would be preserved, she wrote, but the junior varsity would remain cut. Alice Liew and her teammates celebrated and took it as a personal victory, but Love explained that it was not the pressure from the students or parents that made the difference, but rather evaluations on the district level.
“Overall we can’t support our sports teams and activities the way we used to,” said Marsha Gilbert, the director of secondary education for the Alhambra Unified School District. All three high school in the district faced cuts to their badminton programs. Gilbert said it was “just sad” that students could not play their sports because of lack of funds and that she had not heard that any Asian students or parents in particular felt offended by the decision.
Principal Love, who herself emigrated as a teenager from Taiwan, said parents and students came to meet with her, but they never mentioned that they felt that an ethnic bias against the sport was involved. “If you are feeling that way come to communicate to the school directly,” Love said, in a recent interview in her office. She then warned that badminton is not the only school activity that will be cut. “There’s more to come. Money has to come from somewhere,” she said. “We can’t do business as usual. It’s not going to be the same.” Outside her office stands one of the many badminton trophies the junior varsity team won for the school, perhaps the last.