Politics

Proposal Restricting National Mall Access a ‘Game Changer’ for Hill Athletes

Senate and House softball league commissioners say they’re already squeezed for space

Congressional staffers practice their softball game on the National Mall in April 2009. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The National Park Service has pitched a curveball to congressional aides who use the National Mall for recreational sports.

The park service held meetings last week with leagues from across the city — including the House softball league — informing them that it planned to permanently close access on the Mall, from Third Street to 17th Street, to “organized sports.”

Additionally, the park service plans to raise permit fees from as little as $7 for an entire season to $70 per two-hour period on the Mall fields west of the Washington Monument.

Senate softball league commissioner Bill Christian said he and his co-commissioners did not receive an invitation to any meeting.

At one of those meetings, the park service defined organized sports as anything with “back-end organization,” said a commissioner for a league that uses Mall space subject to the proposed ban, who was in attendance.

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That means recreation sports leagues with full-time administrators and staff — such as the popular DC Fray organization — would be sidelined from the nearly one-and-a-quarter-mile stretch of green space running from the Capitol Reflecting Pool past the Washington Monument.

League officials call the stretch of fields subject to the proposed ban “squatting space” because it is reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. DC Fray and other leagues send interns down to the Mall early in the morning to set down cones and reserve fields for games later that day, multiple sources said.

“Because some of these leagues pay people to squat on the Mall all afternoon, that puts additional pressure on the places where we’d like to have our teams able to go out after work and have some fun,” said Brian Looser, a senior Republican House aide and a House softball league commissioner.

The proposed ban’s language also appears to preclude informal groups that use email Listservs or Meetup.com from organizing “pickup” games on the fields.

“Anything beyond the spontaneous, like a father and son throwing the ball back and forth, would appear to be off-limits,” DC Fray founder Robert Kinsler said. “Now whether park rangers would catch one-off activity and enforce the rules is another question.”

The fields around the Washington Monument are some of the most coveted. The park service installed new turf there in the last two years and cited the turf’s maintenance as the primary reason for the new proposal, leaders at last week’s meetings said.

Those meetings were “preliminary, informal efforts to give those stakeholders background information about the possible changes, including modifications to the reservation system/process and fees, as well as locations available for use by organized sports,” park service spokesman Mike Litterst said in a statement Wednesday.

The park service will make a formal announcement about the proposal “in the coming weeks,“ Litterst said. That announcement will include instructions on how the public can submit comment.

A ‘game-changer’

The new restrictions would have a significant limiting effect on playing-field options for Hill staffers who compete in leagues that use the Mall fields, many told Roll Call.

“This is a total potential game-changer,” Looser said. “[Open access to the Mall fields] is a cornerstone of the D.C. and Hill community. It can be tough enough to find reasons to get together, and so having challenges like this are certainly concerning.”

The House softball league ran roughly 85 teams deep with up to 25 players per team last season. The Senate league had about 48 teams with 15 or so players per team. Some of those players are Hill alumni who don’t work at the Capitol anymore. Hundreds of other Hill staffers participate in leagues for kickball, baseball and bocce, among others, that use the Mall fields but aren’t affiliated with Congress.

In all, nearly 3,000 current or former Hill staffers in the D.C. area would feel the effects of the space squeeze caused by the Mall ban.

“Capacity is always a key concern for us,” Christian said.

The D.C. parks and recreation system is notoriously scarce of space, with long wait lists for neighborhood fields that the congressional softball leagues and others may have to turn to if the park service proposal moves ahead in its current form.

“There’s never enough softball fields for the demand we have out there. And there’s competition for space between the Senate and House leagues and others too,” Christian said.

Pushing back

D.C. Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting delegate to the House, sent a letter to the park service Tuesday, urging it to reconsider the ban and the permit fee hike for other fields on the western half of the Mall. Five Virginia and Maryland lawmakers co-signed the letter.

The founders and original planners of the National Mall always intended for it to be “a gathering place for public activity — including First Amendment activity, cultural events, and recreational use,” Norton wrote.

“We understand that NPS has recently undertaken a significant and costly renovation of the turf on the Mall … but the mall is not a turf sanctuary — it is a public park designed to host a variety of diverse, high-traffic events.”

The letter will not be enough, some opposition leaders have said.

“We’re going to need way more than six local congresspeople to sign onto this petition,” Kinsler said.

Kinsler has created a webpage, yesmallball.com, that outlines his opposition to the park service proposal. He has also enlisted the pro bono help of digital grass-roots advocacy consultant Jill Nguyen and circulated a Change.org petition that, at publication time, had already garnered more than 10,000 signatures in three days. His goal is to collect 40,000 more.

In a meeting last week, he said, the park service tried to downplay the tightened access to fields on the Mall from Third Street through 17th Street.

“It was only a bullet point on [the] last slide,” Kinsler said.

“Sneak is a strong word, but they definitely didn’t want that to be part of the conversation,” he added.

A place to unwind

Working on Capitol Hill full-time is many things — exhilarating, frenetic, fulfilling — but it is decidedly not consistent.

“Not to say it’s different than other jobs, but a lot of days on the Hill, you don’t know what your schedule is going to be or when you’re going to get off,” Looser said.

Aides often find themselves shuttling pizza to their bosses during committee markups that last through the wee hours of the morning or wheeling entire garbage bins full of Chipotle to their party caucus during never-ending vote-a-ramas.

Free access to the Mall fields, just a few hundred yards from the Capitol steps, has for decades provided a convenient way for aides to meet up at weird hours and unwind through sport, multiple longtime staffers said.

“Being able to play on the mall,” Looser said,“allows more of us to engage in an activity that’s enjoyed by a lot of people.”

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