Soccer on the National Mall by Ian Livingston used with permission.

A draft proposal from the National Park Service (NPS) would greatly reduce available playing space for organized sports on the National Mall and increase fees for players to use the areas that will still allow residents to play. More than 100,000 people participate in local sports leagues that play on the Mall, according to Fox 5. Following an outcry from players, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) led a meeting on Monday, June 18 to discuss the proposal.

Currently under the DC Park Service, it can cost as little as $7 for the season to use one of the 28 softball and multi-use fields by the Mall and in Rock Creek Park. In 2019, NPS will take over the reservation process and may increase fees up to $70 for two hours or $30 for one hour, plus a $10 admin fee. It could also permanently ban teams from playing near the Washington Monument from 3rd to 17th streets.

All parties said they wanted to work together to find an solution, but…

NPS said it has had to spend a lot of money fixing the grass on the Mall that was damaged from sports activity, and had to close the area around the Washington Monument to restore the turf. Panelists in favor of organized sports readily acknowledged the importance of keeping the Mall grounds in a state of good repair, and even conceded that higher fees might be necessary to ensure that the recent years-long turf restoration project conducted by NPS was not in vain.

Proponents also made the case that part of the point of the turf restoration was to end up with stronger, more resilient grounds that can handle a variety of activities, including recreation.

Use of the National Mall for recreation and enjoyment has been part of its purpose since the L’Enfant Plan, a point made by two meeting attendees Robert Kinsler, the CEO of DC Fray, a for-profit social sports organization and Judy Scott Feldman, the Chair of the National Mall Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group. The Mall is not, to quote Feldman, “just for tea and picnics.”

Image by Jennifer used with permission.

Another case for keeping the Mall open for sports is the sheer lack of adequate outdoor facilities in the rest of the District. Seth Shapiro, Permit Systems Director of DC Parks and Recreation (DPR), which is relinquishing its permitting authority at certain Mall sites, cited the often-intense competition for athletic space at parks around the city.

Acting Superintendent Patricia Trap of NPS seemed willing to hear out these concerns, and — with some prodding from Norton — committed to refraining from moving forward with any permanent changes until there had been an extensive public engagement process.

Norton said repeatedly that it was far more preferable to have the parties involved come to an agreement among themselves rather than leave the issue to Congressional appropriators who may not have a deep understanding of the District’s needs. Trap, who is just four weeks into her role having transferred recently from outside of DC, seemed to be glad to avoid such political pitfalls.

The devil is always in the details

The meeting became less cordial when the discussion turned to the permitting system for volleyball courts at the northwest part of the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and Kennedy Center. A contingent of pick-up volleyball players made up the bulk of those in attendance, and they were not shy about expressing their criticism of how NPS has handled the courts since they were taken over from DPR in 2015. The at-times tense back-and-forth illustrated the passion local residents have for sports.

Volleyball players also raised a compelling point about the currently vague role of for-profit sports enterprises like DC Fray. To that end, Kinsler argued that demand for public space far outstrips supply, and organized social sports make efficient use of space by scheduling large numbers of people (which costs money).

Kinsler also said that registered companies provide consistent points of contact for public officials when issues arise, and pointed out that many sports are not conducive to a pick-up style of play.

Volleyball courts and the Washington Monument by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

NPS does have regulations on the books about for-profit activities on National Park grounds, but it remained unclear whether and how they are being enforced in the case of organized sports.

Norton, for her part, applauded the enterprising nature of groups like DC Fray, and cautioned NPS to enforce more consistent guidelines to avoid running afoul of both federal policies and public opinion.

In the end, all that came out of the meeting was a commitment to keep having more such meetings to hammer out the “competing values,” in Norton’s words, of a lively National Mall vs. prudent use of federal lands and dollars.

While much remained up in the air, one thing is clear: don’t mess with volleyball.

Ben Lockshin works in public affairs by day, does theater and improv by night, and is a nerd about transit, housing, and urban development at all times. His play CAVEAT, a comedy about four young adults searching for affordable housing in DC, ran at the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival. He lives car-free on Capitol Hill.