“Pay to Play” – The Next Big Threat to HS Sports

Whenever school districts go into austerity mode, the very first things that get slashed are the school’s extracurricular activities. That includes the school’s band, theatrical productions, and of course, the school athletic teams.

Cutting back on these items is nothing new, and in years past, invariably, after a year or two of having the parents chip in and pay a “participation fee” for their kids to play on teams, the budgets are re-balanced and the “pay to play” syndrome usually goes away.

But as noted on my show today, Bill King of Sports Business Journal did extensive research from all around the country, and found that pay-to-play situations are dramatically rising, and even worse, the fees are averaging $200 per sport per kid, and in some cases go as high as $950 per sport.

What does this mean? To me, it means the following: that parents better get used to paying a lot of money if their kid (or kids) want to play HS or middle school sports. I also get the sense that this is one of those trends that may not go away, and in fact, will become part of the national landscape. And of course, when it comes to teams which are already paid for in full by parents – e.g. travel teams — they are only going to become more popular as HS sports begin to fade away in popularity.

In short, due to economic pressures, we are now getting very close to where HS sports are becoming nothing more than a vestige of what they used to be, and that travel (or club/premier/elite) teams will become the norm. As one caller suggested this AM – why not have volunteer parents coach the HS teams? Sounds nice in theory, but it would be disastrous.

All in all, these pay to play programs are a real cause for concern for sports parents everywhere.

They’re the next wave in the aluminum bat battle. Starting in January, 2011, any and all aluminum baseballs that are used in NCAA baseball will have to carry a seal of BBCOR approval.

BBCOR stands for “Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution” and it focuses on how much of a trampoline effect the barrel of a bat has on a ball. Bat manufacturers will have to, in effect “deaden” the trampoline bounce that pitched balls experience when a batter makes contact. Basically, aluminum bats will theoretically be the same as wooden bats.

Then, starting in 2012, all HS baseball bats will follow in the same way; that is, they will all need at BBCOR stamp on each bat.

Will this work? No one, of course, knows. Will aluminum bats become just as dull as wood bats? Well, many years ago, when aluminum bats were first introduced in the early 1970s, the original aluminum models were heavy and the ball did not jump off them. The only real advantage of using a metal bat in those days was that they wouldn’t break on an inside pitch; batters benefitted by getting cheap dink hits to the outfield instead of having to deal with broken bats.

So are the new BBCOR bats going to be like the old ones from 40 years ago? Probably not. Instead, I imagine the new bats will continue to be light-weight, easy to swing, and feature a very large sweet spot. At least that’s what I think.

And who knows? Maybe the aluminum bat manufacturers will come up with some way to give the BBCOR bats a stronger trampoline effect after repeated usage – -just like many of the composite bats do now. This past June at the College World Series in Omaha, more than 30 composite bats were thrown out of competitive play because their barrels were too springy. The irony is that these bats were legal when they were first purchased, but after repeated use, the resins in the bats became springier and thus gave batted balls greater exit speed off the bat.

Confused by all of this? Well, I am too. There’s only one simple answer that gets rid of all this nonsense — just tell kids that they’re only allowed to use wood bats. After all, that’s what they use in pro ball, and the game seems pretty good to me.

How to get rid of bullying and hazing…

Susan Engel, who’s a professor of psychology at Williams College, made a compelling argument on my show on Sunday AM. That is, when it comes to putting a stop to bullying and hazing with kids, it takes a lot more than just putting forth some placards on the school walls or having a teacher address the issue for a few minutes in the school auditorium.

In short, in order for a school to eliminate these chronic problems, there needs to be an all-out war in which teachers, coaches, administrators, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and so on are all empowered to stop any bullying they witness immediately. Engel made it clear that kids instinctively bully each other. As such, we need to work hard to constantly educate on how to behave with each other, and in effect, how to be nice to each other.

It may all seem like a colossal effort, but for any school district or family that has seen a student be the victim of hazing or bullying, the price is certainly not too high. Suicides are too common these days — witness the tragic case of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince from Massachusetts last year — and simply having laws on the books isn’t enough. Especially in a day and age where kids can’t even go on the internet without being harassed, it’s pretty clear that this problem has to be addressed everywhere, and in a serious manner.

What Happened From The Last Generation of Sports Parents to Today?

I spent some time reflecting on how today’s generation of sports parents are so much different in their approach to their kids in sports than parents were 20-25 years ago. And I think I’ve pinpointed some of the more compelling forces:

1. Today’s pro athletes make mega-fortunes. A generation ago, pro athletes were wealthy, but today’s athletes are more like corporate entities with the millions they rake in. As such, parents today feel that it’s very much worth the time and expense to push their kids ahead in sports since the payoff is potentially worth millions.

2. And besides, even if the kid doesn’t go pro, he/she should at least get a college scholarship for sports. Parents today see that as almost a birth-right for their kids. What they don’t know is that most athletic scholarships are worth only a few thousand dollars, as most college sports programs don’t generate any revenue.

3. Parents today also assume that if their kid is the team MVP or makes All-League  in HS, that will give them a major step-up in terms of being recruited for a top college. Again, that’s a myth. The college coaches recruit only those kids who have major, major athletic credentials – and being HS MVP or All-League is no longer viewed as a major accomplishment by the recruiters.

4. Travel teams – which of course didn’t exist 30 years ago – are seen as giving a kid a major advantage over their peers. But here again, there’s no guarantee that your son/daughter will even be good enough to make a travel team (making them into a “has been” at an early age). And even if they make a travel squad, then there’s always the squabbles about playing time and playing the right position. Again, these issues didn’t exist a generation ago. Plus, very few travel team kids will tell you they play for fun – that’s not a top priority.

So, what does all this mean? Hard to say, except that it does seem that when we were kids, playing sports in the backyard, or on the sandlot, was a lot more enjoyable, less pressured, and overall a better experience. The real question, then, is how come we don’t want the same kind of experience in sports for our kids?

HS swimmer loses athletic scholarship: sues her guidance counselor

In one of the strangest cases I’ve read about in some time, a champion HS swimmer from Missouri was offered an athletic scholarship to Colorado State University – -only to find that it was rescinded when the college admissions office read the less-than-flattering report from the girl’s HS guidance counselor.

In short, Shannon McKoy, who had won all sorts of awards as a swimmer and who carried a 3.0 GPA, was thrilled to receive the scholarship. But the college took it back when it read the recommendation letter from her HS guidance counselor. The counselor rated the girl as being “below average” in several key areas including integrity and leadership.

Outraged, the girl and her parents sued the guidance counselor and the HS. Colorado State, sensing bad publicity, reversed its position and gave the girl her scholarship back. But the lawsuit against the school and counselor continue. Among other claims is that the counselor didn’t even know the swimmer.

In any event, the case has gone national, and the parents are demanding $75,000 to take care of the psychological damages incurred by Shannon, their daughter.

In truth, there are lots of missing pieces in this case. Did the guidance counselor really know the girl? Why didn’t Colorado State simply call the school when it got the report and ask, in confidence, whether there was a problem with this kid’s make-up? And why did the parents make this into a lawsuit – that is, why embarass your kid even more?

All in all, a most bizarre case. But like the case last week where parents sued the hockey league because their kids got cut, this is just another example of sports parents going nuts.

“If you cut my kid from the team, I’ll sue you!”

Holy smokes! A couple of teenager hockey players get cut after trying out for a travel team in Toronto, and their parents filed a lawsuit against the league, coaches, and evaluators for “causing emotional distress” to the kids. The parents want $25,000 on behalf of their kids.

Now, I happen to see this lawsuit as nothing more as a legal way of annoying the league. These hockey parents must realize they have very little chance of winning this case, but their “reward”  is by forcing the league to hire lawyers, go to court, and deal with embarrassing publicity.

But – on the off chance that this case does move forward – can you imagine the precedent this would set? Coaches everywhere would demand to be covered with insurance that protects from these kinds of lawsuits. League administrators would insist that all kids (and their parents) sign waivers before they try out, in which they give up their right to sue in case things don’t work out for the youngster.

Even worse, kids who get cut from a team would no longer use adversity to bounce back from not making the team. Rather, they would simply ask Mom or Dad to hire a lawyer for them. And of course, what happens if the kids do win their case? Are they reinstated on the team? How does a coach handle a situation like that? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this can just spiral out of control in a hurry.

All in all, this case is now in the Canadian legal system. While I am sympathetic with the kids getting cut from the team, I sure hope this doesn’t become the standard way of dealing with adversity. It slashes at the very heart of sports.

The Growing Battle for Fields

Law professor Doug Abrams covered several important topics on my show last week – including cyberpace issues and the safety concerns of having pee-wee hockey players start body-checking – but he also touched on the problem of local towns and communities and school districts dealing with the lack of enough playing fields to serve all the youth league teams.

We all acknowledge that there are usually too many kids but too few fields. But what Doug suggested is that schools and parks and rec personnel get together and truly map out which teams get the fields and at what times. Invariably, says Doug, the elite travel teams barge in and demand more practice and game times than the other regular teams, which is not only unfair but only leads to increased friction.

Too many towns and villages allow this practice to continue. As a result, only the top athletes in a town get the choice fields and hours to practice, and the other kids are given the leftovers. It seems to me that if your town is trying to keep ALL of its kids in shape and you want to build ALL your teams to become highly successful at the HS varsity level, then it’s essential that ALL the kids (not just travel players) are allowed to use the fields in a equal and democratic fashion.

Every town is different, of course. But this planning process does take time and effort, and real cooperation from all parties involved. You really need to keep all the athletes accommodated, regardless of their level of athletic ability. Yes, it does involve compromise. The other alternative is, of course, to simply build more fields.

Why do kids today have more injuries?

Dr. James Andrew, the noted orthopedic surgeon, is spearheading a blue-ribbon list of coaches and doctors to head up a nationwide push to let sports parents that there’s an epidemic of kids getting injured at younger and younger ages. Never before, for example, have so many youngsters needed Tommy John surgery to repair their pitching arms.

As noted on my show, this campaign couldn’t be more timely. We in the US have fallen into the trap of pushing our kids into specializing in one sport at terribly young ages, meaning that the kids run a major risk of burnout as well as becoming hurt from repetitive use.

That being, I do wonder why when we were kids growing up (and we were admitteldy more active than our kids of today), we never had to go through surgery. I can’t ever recall a kid having arm surgery. Yes, some pitchers would occasionally have a tired or “dead” arm, but after a week or two of rest, they bounced back.

In any event, I do want to once more push the idea that there should be a Presidential Commission on Amateur Sports in the US, and the sooner the better. We would all benefit from that kind of Commission.

Finally, one suggestion to Dr. Andrews: since you are so well respected and because you consult with LL Baseball, PLEASE tell them to ban all kids from throwing curveballs immediately. There is clearly no reason for kids to jeopardize arm injuries by throwing curves and sliders, especially at the tender age of 12 or 13.

More so, putting a ban like this into place is pretty simple. Just empower the home plate umpire to give the pitcher a warning whenever a curve is thrown, and if the kid throws another one, then simply remove him from the mound and place him in the outfield or infield. Seems like a pretty simple, and  healthy, decision.

Are we doing travel teams the right way?

There was a long feature piece in the NY Times Magazine section two weeks ago by sportswriter Michael Sokolove in which he focused on the Ajax soccer club in The Netherlands. Basically, the piece zeroed in on how the Dutch go about finding very young talented soccer players (as young as age 5) and how they develop their skills.

The takeaway was interesting in that the Dutch only have the kids practice at Ajax three days a week, and then play only one game on the weekend. That’s it, until they’re 14 or 15. Here, of course, we start our kids on travel teams as early as possible, but unlike the Dutch, we have our kids play pretty much all week and then play in two-three games ove the weekend. In the US, the emphasis is on winning – even at a young age. The Dutch and other European models are all about skill development. Winning, they insist, comes at a later age.

So the question is — are we missing the boat when it comes to developing our young athletes? Maybe we should be emphasizing not only skill development – but just as importantly, not being so eager to cut kids at ages 8 or 10 or 12. It’s essential to recognize that kids often develop as “late bloomers” in their teenage years, but of course, if they’ve been cut from their travel team, there’s really no incentive for them to continue on. And that’s a shame.

Consider the case of Danny Nava. Here’s a kid who was a good, but not great, baseball player in HS. He tried out as a walk-on at the Univ. of Santa Clara, only to be cut. He left Santa Clara, and enrolled at a local junior college where he did well. He ultimately came back to Santa Clara, and played well his senior year. Unfortunately, he wasn’t drafted by any pro team, so he tried out and made a local independent team in Chico, CA. In 2007, Nava had a great year and was named MVP of the Golden Baseball League. The Red Sox noticed, and signed him as a free agent. And then, last weekend, he got called up to the big leagues, and in his first at-bat — on the very first pitch he saw in the majors – he hit a grand slam home run!

In short, another case of a kid pursuing his dream against all odds. And that’s the beauty of sports.