Saturday, January 4, 2014

Professionalizing High School Sports

What I find most disturbing about this story is that I know it's not an isolated incident:
Katelynn Flaherty is eligible and is expected to play next week at Metuchen after the All-State point guard enrolled at the school Thursday, Metuchen athletic director John Cathcart said Friday.
The eligibility status of All-Stater Marina Mabrey, Flaherty's former Point Pleasant Beach teammate, is still uncertain, said Manasquan athletic director Ron Kornegay, who confirmed that Mabrey completed her transfer to the Monmouth County school Thursday.
Cathcart said Flaherty has met the NJSIAA change of address requirements, so she will be exempt from the state's 30-day waiting period. Flaherty’s intention to transfer to Metuchen was reported Thursday, and Cathcart confirmed that the senior enrolled that day at the Middlesex County school.
“Once she changes venue, she becomes automatically eligible,” he said. “And she and her family are now living in Metuchen."
The story goes on to recount the basketball legacy of that family at Metcheun; no word what her father or uncles did with their lives after their high school basketball careers. Mabrey and Flaherty had transferred to Point Pleasant back in 2012 from Manasquan; they've had stellar careers wherever they went. But it seems far-fetched to think they kept transferring because their families had to move for career or other personal reasons.

I don't want to pick out these particular girls or their families, however; like I said, this isn't an isolated incident:

For decades, high school sports programs in Southern California relied on a simple formula: teenagers in the neighborhood would show up as freshmen or sophomores, try out for a team and stick together through graduation, succeeding or failing with lifelong friends at their side.
Every team that won a football or basketball championship last season in the top division of the Southern Section or City Section had transfer students playing important roles. It's a trend that began to accelerate in the last decade. 

Times have changed. To win a championship at the highest level in the high-profile sports — football and basketball — you clearly need a transfer student or two.
From Long Beach Poly winning the Pac-5 Division in football to Harbor City Narbonne winning the City Division I title, to Westchester winning the City Division I title in basketball to Etiwanda taking the 1AA title, transfers were prominent. At the state basketball championships, Santa Ana Mater Dei (Open), Santa Monica (Division I), Redondo (Division 2) and Pacific Hills (Division 4) all relied on students who showed up sometime after their freshman year.
Bellflower St. John Bosco won the Division 3A basketball championship with a starting lineup of transfer students. And it's not just in football and basketball that transfers are making a huge impact. Gardena Serra won its first Division 3 baseball championship with the help of six transfer students.
Last school year was the first in which a new state transfer rule reduced the sit-out period from one year to one month for students who switch schools without moving. There were 14,918 transfers statewide, according to statistics compiled by the CIF, and there's no sign that number is going to decrease in 2013-14 now that everyone knows how the rule works.
Player movement is being fueled by a lack of loyalty and changes to NCAA recruiting rules that increase the importance of travel ball competition. At some private schools, presidents and principals have become sports-team general managers, deciding who gets in and who receives financial aid. Parents have been empowered to shop around for the best deal.
Private schools have an option whether to accept or reject any student, and many have adopted the philosophy that welcoming athletes looking to transfer can be a boon. Exposure generated by the sports teams fills classroom seats, the thinking goes. Public schools, which receive state funds based on their enrollment, are equally eager to add students.
The summer has become, as described by one basketball coach, "the wild, wild West," where rosters are in constant flux and coaches, athletes and fans wait to see who's coming, who's going and what's the latest rumor. [emphasis mine]
Exacerbating this is the rise of the sports-oriented charter school, something I've written about before. But let's be clear: even without those charters, this has been a long time coming. Private "basketball schools" have been around for years; the competition for recruits now extends down to as low as fifth grade.

The prize for the players, ostensibly, is a scholarship. But as college sports have become big business, we are confronted with scandal after scandal after scandal, all adding together to show an unquestionable truth: college athletes are being used to make oodles of money for both their schools and for a sports-entertainment industrial complex that eats up and spits out young players faster than it can design new shoes.

High schools - whether private, public, or charter - should not be abetting the exploitation of student-athletes by creating what is essentially a farm system for the NCAA. If college scouts are so bad at picking out talent that they can't recognize an exceptional athlete on a so-so team, that's their problem: we shouldn't be making life easier for them by turning some schools into powerhouses at the expense of the integrity of the entire system.

And think about the teammates of the potential D-I players: how is their morale helped by never knowing if the stars will be around to help their team or take their positions? What does it feel like to lose your job on the varsity squad when a player already committed to Michigan moves to town in the middle of your season? How does it feel to be left behind when your best player leaves school just before conference play starts? I understand these players' families think it's important to go after that brass ring... but there are other families affected as well.

May I stretch a point a little? This attitude is not being helped by a mindset that views education simply as a preparation for a job. If "college and career ready" is our sole focus for schooling, we shouldn't be surprised when student-athletes - and, indeed, all students - become mercenaries.

Our obsession with creating an education system whose primary function is to feed the job market is inevitably going to lead to behaviors like this. We are teaching the kids that their number one goal is to get what they can, whatever the cost. Civic pride, like playing for your home town, is a quaint notion; loyalty and teamwork are valuable only in what they can do for you as an individual.

Of course, this is a natural response to being used: if big universities and TV networks and apparel brands are going to make a ton of dough off of student athletes, those players will naturally want their cut. That is the beauty of the unrestrained free market.

Except, when you get down to the level of teenagers (or younger), it doesn't always look so beautiful, does it?

Andre says: "Kids, get what you can, however you can!"


  1. You nailed it. HS sports are the farm teams for big time university sports and the university sports are the farm teams of the NFL.

    Watch the documentary "Schooled: The Price of College Sports" The NCAA's amateurism rules are clear paths to profit for coaches, NFL owners, Universities, and third party contractors. It's the the athletes who are exploited and discarded. The NCAA's arcane rules enforcement simply maintains their hypocrisy of amateurism.

    This broken system is trickling down to HS. Loyalty to school, home & community? Nah- that's SO 20th century.

  2. Duke, as a long time coach in NJ, I can tell you many stories of unprofessional tactics and breaking of rules!
    The thing that bothers me most is the fact that the athletes know that their coach is breaking the rules and what kind of lesson does that teach the athletes? We have to assume that coaches follow the rules. Even though we may suspect that they are not, it is very difficult to prove. In my 4 decades of coaching there were 4 incidents of a coach breaking the rules that I could prove! The commission simply gave them a probation, a slap on the hand and told them not to do it (or at least not get caught) again!

    In the early 90's recruiting in the private schools became prevalent. This is why in NJ, we have a separation of competition between Publics and Private. The Public schools could not keep up with the recruiting of the best athletes by the Privates.

    If you don't follow the rules then it is no longer a sport or a game. Nobody wins!

  3. Once again you are exposing another dirty little secret. The transferring athletes has long been a standing joke among athletic directors. The fact is talented young people are on the radar of professional recruiters from the day they first displaying superior athletic talent. Recruiting for division one prospects actually start in elementary school. I have been at basketball games where I have witnessed professional agents following elementary athletes. Their first pitch to parents are the high school programs that they can provide for the young athlete. Once again the biggest loser in this “meat market” are minority athletes that are taken advantage of. The more talent the young person has and the less education the parent has the more likely exploration takes place. How many of these young people actually realize an advantage in life after such a childhood? What do you think happen to the mighty Camden High School basketball program? Charter Schools, parochial recruiting, private school recruiting, transferring, and or all the above. Gregory Allen former
    Co-Principal of Camden High School


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