I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Slow Demise of the Student-Athlete

What started in individual sports - tennis, gymnastics, golf - is creeping over to team sports:
This year, at least 20 of New Jersey’s best boys players — kids from Kinnelon to Cranbury to Barnegat — have ditched their high school teams for the academies, adding soccer to the list of individual sports such as tennis, swimming and gymnastics that have seen many elite athletes simply leave behind their high school competitions. What’s more, the decision-makers behind the academies only see this heading one way. Expanding. 
“In this country, what has been for maybe 100 years, it’s still the playing for the local town and having people on a Friday night come and watch, the excitement of being in school and knowing who you are, the leather jackets, the pep rallies,” said Rick Jacobs, who coached at St. Benedict’s Prep and now works for MLS. 
“There will be people that would say we don’t want to kill high school soccer; kids have great times and great memories. But this is potentially only going to take the very, very top talented players away from the high school teams they would normally play with for three months.”
I disagree. Nike doesn't sell shoes just to elite athletes; they've expanded their market by selling dreams to those outside of the elite. There's a market for these academies, and they will spring up faster than weeds. The next tier of kids will start going to the next tier of academies, or the academies themselves will organize like dance companies, with competition to get into the higher levels. There's just too much money to be made for it to be otherwise.

My kids have played soccer for years and I see this all the time. Kids stop playing for their local clubs as earlier as 4th Grade so they can go to the "elite" soccer centers and get "better" training. Why would they take a different attitude when they get to high school where the coach is a math teacher?

Bob Bigelow has been talking about this for years: the kids go up through the "travel" system, parents get used to spending thousands for professional training and fancy uniforms... and then they get to high school, with hand-me-downs, a three-month schedule, and part-time coaches. No wonder they feel like leaving. The parents have been trained for years to shell out cash and drive all over creation. Why would they stop just when their kid is hitting his or her athletic peak?

I don't know if this can happen in every sport. It would be tough to have a football academy, and very often you don't see the standout kid until he's finished his growth spurt anyway. But I predict basketball will be following this path; in fact, it's already happening with the AAU teams.

And we are certainly seeing the demise of the multi-sport athlete. I find it sad.

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