The Untold Story of the Dallas Park Department's Crackdown on Rogue Soccer

The Untold Story of the Dallas Park Department's Crackdown on Rogue Soccer
Courtesy the Offices of City Council member Mark Clayton

Dallas park "ambassador" Courtney Wright, patrolling the front lines of Lake Highlands Park, stood firmly next to the destroyed soccer goal post as angry parents confronted him. One of the parents, videotaping the encounter, asked him why he broke their soccer equipment. "You guys have been instructed to take it down," was the response from Wright, one of the park department employees who patrols Dallas' athletic fields, serving as combination customer service agents and rule enforcers. The parents claimed to reporters that Wright had later dumped their goal posts in a creek.

The confrontation between Wright and the parents was not unique. For months, the Dallas Park and Recreation Department has been cracking down on the unauthorized use of Dallas' athletic fields. Last year, the department reduced the number of hours of play allowed at the fields and has become stricter about enforcing requirements for reservations in an effort to allow overused, damaged fields to repair themselves. (To better understand the problem, Google "tragedy of the commons."

Documents recently obtained by the Observer reveal just how strict the ambassadors have become and how tricky the diplomacy can be when dealing with soccer parents. Park employees describe witnessing parents at games drinking beer or even littering. More troubling is an epidemic of "rogue" or "renegade" soccer play, in which children play on soccer fields at times when they did not pay to reserve the field.

"On Sunday night (7 PM), I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer on Conrad #7," wrote Jason Hagen, a park department supervisor, in an email to his coworkers, "and it appeared to be a very organized group, with cones and goals set up." Hagen said he would ask his crew members to make sure to lock the gates behind them. "I'm not sure how they gained access to the fields, as they were locked on Friday," he wrote of the youths.  

That wasn't the only violation Hagen found: "As for Fair Oaks #1 & 2, there was also a large group of soccer players, again, appeared to be a very organized group, with cones and goals set up." Hagen couldn't do anything to stop it because he had no city credentials with him, he said. 

With some of the leagues, the parents appear to have been given different information about their reservations than the information provided to park workers. On July 7, an ambassador pulled into Fretz Park to turn on the lights for a reservation on the field that wasn't supposed to begin until 8 p.m. But children were already there, before 8 p.m., playing soccer. Wright described the scene, writing in an email that he "observed and took pictures of small children playing a soccer game." Wright made contact with a league supervisor, who claimed to have a reservation. The reservation department, contacted by Wright, told Wright that the reservation wasn't scheduled to begin until later. Wright wrote an email to his supervisor Byran Kirk that he warned the league manager "to stop rogue play on the field before losing rights to the field."

That same day, at a different park, Wright confronted a group of teens playing soccer at the Samuell-Garland Park, on Field 12. There were reservations to use fields 7, 8, 9 and 15, but not 12, Wright wrote. A coach on the scene "did not have a reservation sheet or any supported documentation," Wright said in his email to Kirk. Wright issued another warning.

The confrontation at the Lake Highlands Park, with the destroyed soccer goal posts, occurred on August 10. Wright wrote to Kirk and Charli Jackson, the athletic fields director in the reservation department, that he had talked to some coaches that day "regarding renegading and the whereabouts of the field usage at the park." The coaches, Wright explained, were practicing soccer on an area that was not "a designated field." It was then, Wright said, that he noticed soccer goal posts that did not belong to the city. "This has been an ongoing occurrence in certain parks in the past, where organizations monopolize for financial gain, and destroy city property with their own personal paint marking the fields which is a violation," Wright wrote.

Wright called Kirk, telling him that he planned to "dispose" of the soccer goals. They were too heavy to carry, Wright said, so instead he planned to drag the goals by a chain attached to his truck. "Bryan [told me] to place the goals in a wooded area and I proceeded to do so," Wright wrote in his email. "I also called Charli Jackson and informed her I was finally taking the soccer goals and we would continue to beef [up] monitoring efforts to coral this ongoing issue at other parks."

Wright was then confronted by the goal posts' owners, Rosa Elizondo and her husband. They began taking pictures and cursing at Wright, he said in his email. He called his supervisor again, who told him to unhook the goals and return them to the couple. "I asked ... did he need help taking the goals, and he told me no they are broken and to stick them up my ass," Wright wrote.

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Wright called Kirk and Jackson back, "to inform both that the goals were broken and I was leaving the goals to the side and taking pictures and submitting them with a report." Wright's email account does not explicitly say that he was the person who destroyed the league's goal posts, but it's not clear who else could have. Wright tells the Observer that he is not at liberty to discuss the incident. "There is an ongoing investigation," he said. Messages we left for Assistant Director Oscar Carmona have not been returned. 

One week after the goal posts' destruction, Wright faced another group of angry soccer parents, this time at the Anderson Bonner field. Near the end of a game, Wright writes in an email to his supervisors, he interrupted to ask a coach for verification of their soccer reservation, "because we have had constant issues with rogue play from several teams," he wrote. The players became upset, Wright said in an email, as he explained to them that they needed to have documentation in order to continue their game. "Once I received their paperwork, I would allow them to play 5 extra minutes ...The players' reservation was from 7 to 8 p.m." After showing Wright the correct paperwork, the soccer players asked Wright to leave and began cussing at him. He called the police.  

"I called 911 for DPD to assist and told the guys if the individuals would continue to curse they would be trespassed off of city property immediately for acting disorderly," Wright wrote. Though he had extended their reservation until 8:05 p.m., or an extra five minutes, as a favor for interrupting their game, he noted that the team continued to play soccer at 8:07 p.m. The police officers who finally arrived told a league mom to contact the city management to resolve the reservation dispute. Clearly, brazen soccer players playing past their reservation time apparently was a problem the Dallas Police Department would rather not handle. As Wright explains to his supervisors: "The last time the players were on the field was 8:14 p.m. and a photo was taken." 

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, assistant Parks director Oscar Carmona returned my call. He said that Wright took responsibility for damaging the goal posts. "He did admit that when he did chain them up to the back of the vehicle...that they did get dismantled," Carmona said. Immediately afterward, Carmona said, the department ordered new goal posts for the league, though the order took several weeks to ship out, he said. He said that there is in fact a wooded area in the park where employees can store goals. However, Wright has denied placing the broken goal in the creek, Carmona said. "There was one in there, however we still don't know how it got there." 

Under the City of Dallas' Parks and Recreation department rules, people are not allowed to leave their own equipment on the field. Instead, the city is supposed to furnish soccer fields with City of Dallas-owned goal posts. But the field that the Elizondos were using had no soccer goals installed by the city, because it was an "non-reservable" field, Carmona said. "If it's just an open area that is a non-reservable field, anybody can use it , however we do not allow for people to bring in their own equipment and leave it on the site," he said. Carmona said that Parks has now changed the status of the field to allow the league to reserve it  and has waived the league's reservation fees for the remainder of the season. 

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