Who would have thought that Upper St. Clair would be a haven for affirmative action? That its young people might soon receive opportunities based not on merits but on the wrongs suffered by their elders?
It seems unlikely, but nothing else explains the school board's surprising decision in late May to replace the coach of its high school girls soccer team, Wayne Capra.
The board's 5-4 decision to remove Capra certainly wasn't due to incompetence: In six years of coaching, Capra's squad took home the Quad-A championship four times. His teams won four out of every five games they played. I know of a player or two on the other side of the ball who found Capra's coaching style arrogant, but let's face it: You don't live in Upper St. Clair if you're embarrassed about coming out on top. You want to be a good sport? Move to Mount Lebanon with all the other whiny also-rans.
So what explains this new version of the Capra story, in which diligence and talent are punished? By law, discussions about personnel take place behind closed doors, and none of Capra's detractors complained publicly about his performance. But the general consensus, as reflected in media coverage of the incident, is that Capra didn't parcel out enough playing time to all his players...especially those whose parents have pull on the school board.
Let us pause and reflect upon the revolutionary spirit apparently taking hold in this quiet bedroom community. The notion that winning isn't enough -- that everyone must share the fruits of victory -- seems downright Marxist for USC. This is, after all, a municipality that in the 2000 election endorsed the Bush/Cheney ticket by a 2-to-1 margin. If such egalitarianism survives, perhaps the hired help can expect a bonus with the next capital-gains tax cut. At last, the promise of trickle-down economics fulfilled!
But much as I relish the prospect of a People's Republic of Upper St. Clair, some other, less ennobling tendencies may be at work. Sexism, for one. It's almost impossible to imagine football coach Jim Render, for example, being canned this way. Though over the years his program has been justly regarded as a regional powerhouse, Render hasn't brought home championships as frequently as Capra has. But as long as the team does well, Render isn't likely to get canned for benching players. Football, see, is serious business; the coach's job is to win games. The rules for girls soccer are a little different, apparently: Delicate self-esteems must also be protected. And sadly, no matter how many wins a coach piles up, the general public doesn't care enough about girls sports to rally behind him. So a sufficiently outraged, and sufficiently well connected, minority is enough to oust him. Such an effort doesn't need public support, just indifference -- and even in the land of soccer moms football commands more attention than girls soccer.
Of course, the vast majority shares the sentiments of resident Dan Mazzarini, who reportedly told the school board that the Capra firing was "stereotypical of everything wrong with Upper St. Clair -- a few people with an agenda getting their way."
A cynic might suggest that, if it weren't for a few people with an agenda getting their way, places like Upper St. Clair wouldn't exist. But this is a community that firmly believes in meritocracy. In May 1998, USC voters, like those in other affluent communities, overwhelmingly endorsed a countywide "home rule charter" whose backers pledged to end nepotism and influence peddling. In the very first county executive race which followed, USC voted by a five-to-one margin in favor of Republican Jim Roddey, who pledged to end the backroom deals that he claimed ran rampant in the Democratic party.
Yet thanks to Capra's dismissal, this bastion of good government and merit hiring finds itself ashamed, embarrassed by the kind of petty influence peddling usually associated with the ward-heelers of McKeesport or the smoky backrooms of Bethel Park. What next? Will we find out that James Smith, the USC bondwriter who sits on Pittsburgh's state-appointed financial oversight panel, is part of a backroom political process too? One destined to use the city's fiscal travails to the advantage of Republicans?
And just think what the neighbors will say. They'll whisper that USC -- and the economic system it stands atop of -- isn't really a meritocracy after all. That what its residents oppose isn't nepotism or favoritism per se, but merely giving favors to other people's relatives.
But there's a much larger question that no one has asked so far: Won't somebody think of the children?
Given USC's preference for Republicans -- not to mention an African-American population of 0.7 percent -- it's probably safe to say that Upper St. Clair isn't a hotbed of affirmative action. Its residents no doubt feel they earned their success: No one gave them an unfair advantage based on who their parents were, the wrongs they might have suffered. Hard work got them where they are, and many would consider it an insult to think that they, or any other capable person, needs a quota to achieve that success. USC is open to anyone with the talent and ambition to live there.
Yet no one seems awake to the danger that with Capra gone, his successors may play students for purely political reasons, whether they're actually good enough to be on the field or not. A township of 20,000 souls sleeps while its children are in peril, facing the danger of being corrupted by undeserved preference. The questions that Republicans ask of affirmative action must now be asked of Upper St. Clair: Do we not risk hurting the children's self-esteem by letting them play, knowing they may only be filling politically motivated quotas? Shouldn't they get to succeed or fail based on their abilities? If not, what will USC's parents stop at? Next thing you know, Dad will be pulling strings to help junior land an internship at a Downtown law firm.
And how will the girls soccer team -- the very flower of Upper St. Clair's youth -- hold up their heads next season, knowing they may not really have earned the advantages they enjoy?
We can only hope that, somehow, they'll get over it.