EDITORIAL: Sour taste lingers

At quick glance, one could see that no one seems 100% satisfied with the compromise that had been expected to allow the tennis courts at the Veterans School reopened for pickleball last week as a sign that the Recreation & Parks Commission did its job.

However, look closer, and you can see the opposite is true.

To review, the group Marblehead Pickleball raised about $65,000 to help convert four tennis courts at Vets into six dedicated pickleball courts. Then, this fall, it partnered with Rec & Parks to create four additional pickleball courts at Seaside Park.

But even though Marblehead had been enjoying an unseasonably warm winter, the pickleball nets came down in January. The town’s pickleball players — some 400 strong — were mystified and struggled to get a clear explanation.

Apparently, at least part of the rationale was that the contractor who had worked on the Seaside courts reported that pressure from the pickleball nets was causing the posts to which they were attached to lean.

Might the same group that raised such a substantial sum to convert the courts in the first place have agreed to pay for the repairs? They were never offered that deal, it seems.

Though it was not raised at the Feb. 7 Rec & Parks meeting, at least one pickleball player says she had been told that the nets came down because the town was concerned about liability.

Even if the department needs a refresher course on the state’s recreational use statute, G.L.c. 21, §17C, which shields property owners who freely open their land for recreation in the absence of wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct, any such concern has never prompted the department to cordon off the town’s basketball courts or fields.

Nearly a quarter century ago, in his groundbreaking book “Bowling Alone,” Robert D. Putnam demonstrated how people had become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and democratic institutions.

You don’t need to be a social scientist to know that the social fabric has hardly been mended in the years since. True, something resembling “communities” have emerged on social media, but online discourse — even in its best form — has proven to be less than nourishing.

The “online disinhibition effect” — the tendency of people to act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person — is always lurking. At least one study suggests we are ruder to one another online due to the lack of eye contact.

Now, add a once-in-a-century pandemic to the mix. In a May 2021 American Perspectives Survey, Americans reported having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.

Enter pickleball, which in Marblehead and elsewhere has shown the ability to break through and buck these trends. We may be bowling alone, but we are playing pickleball with a partner — or three. When neighbors come together for some friendly face-to-face competition, they are getting some stress-relieving exercise to boot.

Given the obvious benefits, one would think that a commission with “recreation” in its name would bend over backwards to keep a good thing going.

Yet to the bitter end, the pickleballers had to fight to get the commission to give an inch.

Why, exactly, did the commission need to delay the reopening of the courts until Tuesday (Feb. 22), instead of allowing play over a long holiday weekend? Unclear.

And why did the courts then not reopen as planned on that Tuesday? Sure, the weather was less than ideal. But in the first half of the week, some pickleball players showed up ready to play, only to be greeted by locked gates.

Tell us again, too, why players are being required to supply their own nets? Or why pickleball programming has not been a priority for Rec & Park — if for no other reason than to allow the town to reap a return on Marblehead Pickleball’s investment?

We do not mean to diminish the challenge our local boards often have in balancing competing interests. Nor do we doubt the testimony from neighbors of the Veterans School courts that the sounds of pickleball play in winter travel more easily in the absence of a canopy of vegetation that exists in other seasons.

Nonetheless, given the obvious benefits of allowing the pickleball players to pursue their passion, the baseline for the Recreation & Parks Commission should have been “what can we do to keep the courts open?” Closing them should have been a last resort, and getting them reopened should not have required the pickleballers to go to war.

As the Current was going to press, pickleball — specifically a “sound mitigation request” — was again on the agenda for the Rec & Parks’ Feb. 28 meeting. Representatives of Marblehead Pickleball told the Current they planned to attend and have no objection to sound mitigation. They just want to play.

Here’s hoping that, by the time this editorial hits the streets, some common ground will have been found.

Right on its website, the Recreation & Parks Department describes its mission as “to enhance the environment and the quality of life for the residents of Marblehead.”

Yes, the mission statement goes on to talk about “care and maintenance” of parks and fields. But the people come first, as it should be.

Perhaps current members of the Recreation & Parks Commission should recite the mission statement at the start of meetings and pledge themselves to its stated hierarchy — people first, then facilities.

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

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