Are Youth-Prep Sports Becoming Too Competitive? Too “Professional?”
Yes, times have changed in youth and prep sports. But is it for the better?
In the wake of the Richland High School loss to Garfield in the Washington state 4A championship basketball game, reports out of Seattle have questioned the recent transfer of six star players to the Bulldog's hoops squad. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) says all the players met eligibility requirements to attend Garfield. But many are raising an eyebrow about six players coming to play for one of the most storied basketball programs in Washington state history. Again, these reports came out of Seattle, NOT Richland or the Tri-Cities.
But this is nothing new. The Bellarmine Prep high school sports website last October issued a scathing review of how transfer policies in our state are being "harshly violated." Over the years, there have been rumors and stories (some more substantiated than others) of Mid-Columbia athletes bouncing around, and even back and forth across the Columbia River to play for "better" programs. If this kind of thing happens, it's usually with the goal to win a championship, AND get more fully noticed by collegiate recruiters.
But this is only part of the overall picture. Another part of the equation, and it ties into this athletics-first mentality, is the growing practice of select, or super teams. Elite programs are designed expressly to attract the attention of college scouts. While All-Star teams have existed for decades, there wasn't the social pressure to "get your kid noticed" at the earliest possible age.
It used to be college recruiters would comb the country, looking at perspective recruits from hundreds of high schools. Often, a coach would send game film of an athlete to collegiate scouts if they felt the athlete was worthy of a look. But now, it's changed. High school athletes regularly attend "combines," where they are evaluated just like the NFL gathering that just occurred at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. A number of Mid-Columbia high school football players have told me if you don't attend these sessions, often you won't get recruited - even if you were an All-Conference caliber performer.
It used to be a shrewd, hard-working college recruiter would "take a flyer" on a kid who might not have been a Blue Chip prospect, but showed great promise. Now, athletes often have to travel hundreds of miles to attend numerous camps or combines with the hope of getting a scholarship opportunity.
And now the mentality is filtering down to the middle school and even upper grade school levels.
Numerous website have popped up that rate the top 100 or even 200 middle school athletes nationally and regionally in football, baseball, basketball and more. Athletes are being discovered earlier than ever, colleges putting "dibs" on what they think are "can't-miss" prospects. Some are even as young as 12 years old.
In the Mid-Columbia, as well as other areas of the country, select sport teams have been assembled in everything from volleyball, to baseball, hoops and more. Now, don't get the idea we are completely against select teams. They do offer an opportunity for athletes to showcase their abilities in extended competition, often against teams from outside our area - even other states. But years ago, they were more of an All-Star team, often selected from the best players from existing sports leagues. That is a reasonable process that's been in sports since the early part of the 20th century.
Now, things have changed. In baseball, for example, if you can assemble 10-13 or more players who's parents can afford to pony up $1,000, $1,200 or more, and you can find a coach, then you have a team. Depending upon the sport, these athletes can play as many as 40-60 games, stretching up to 6 months or even year round. One of our older daughter's best friends parents invested over $3,500 during her last 2 years of middle school and then high school on her volleyball development. Select teams, tournaments, camps and more. That did NOT include all of their travel, lodging and related personal expenses. She did end up getting a college scholarship, but it was a tremendous financial and logistical strain on the family.
Again, nothing wrong with this. You are free to spend your money how you wish, and pursue whatever goals you and your child want. But youth sports, as one parent told me last year, have become increasingly a "have and have-not" prospect.
The pursuit of athletic development and exposure for youth and prep athletes has become so expensive and cutthroat, many youth are being left behind.
Not everyone is destined to be a collegiate or professional athlete. But across the country, and even in the Mid-Columbia, affordable athletic opportunities that once attracted a wide variety of players are dying on the vine.
Not every select or specialty team is made up of All-Star athletes. But more and more parents seem to be buying into the idea that "if my child isn't on some select or special team, isn't playing 50 games a year, or isn't attending every camp or combine, they won't get noticed." They fear that because everyone else is doing it, they need to as well.
And some believe, correctly or not, that playing on such teams will give them an edge when their son or daughter tries out for their high school team as well.
College recruiters have welcomed this idea, because it allows them to examine and see athletes in large settings - such as combines. They believe it allows them to find prospects far more easily. No more having to search the country as was done for decades. But what about the quality athletes who can't afford to "play this game," or choose not do to so because it dominates their lives year round?
We probably wouldn't be having this discussion except that in many areas of the country, and even the Mid-Columbia, what were once strong, affordable sports opportunities for youth are being squeezed out of existence by this new uber-sports mentality.
For decades, sports inherently have "weeded out" athletes who didn't have high school or collegiate potential. Some chose to pursue other ventures, others, like Michael Jordan (who was cut as a freshman in high school) choose to rededicate themselves with obvious results.
But this new "all or nothing" mentality has lowered that "cut" bar to the point where many quality athletes don't even get a chance to see if they could make the grade at an earlier and earlier age.
Maybe it's time we re-prioritize where sports should be in the lives of our children. Important, yes, but not THAT important. .