How much longer will high school athletics exist? That is a question seldom talked about openly but is on the minds of people who have been around high school sports for years and seen the steady decline of the industry.
The status of girls’ basketball in the East Bay Athletic League certainly brings the subject to light. The concern is real yet not something people want to publicly speak to. There are many contributing factors, all of which I see occurring from youth sports through high school levels.
Let’s run through what I see as the reasons for the continual decline.
Numbers of athletes: Must be the most important as if you don’t have enough athletes to form a team, well then you can’t have a program.
Take girls’ basketball for example, Livermore High is not able to field a varsity due to a lack of players and is not the only program where numbers are an issue. Granada has no freshman team, and the same with Dougherty Valley. Monte Vista has no freshman or junior varsity team.
It is amazing to think that one year after easily winning a North Coast Section D-I title, the Mustangs can field all of one team in their program.
This is a problem not only in the EBAL as leagues around the Bay Area are experiencing schools not being able to field a full complement of teams.
It’s not just basketball, as football teams throughout the area save for a couple schools are suffering the same fate. What used to be considered small numbers are now a jackpot. Sophomores and now freshmen are very relevant varsity players, something that rarely happened.
Specialization: It gets more defined every year that kids are focusing on only one sport which obviously impacts the number of athletes for all the other sports.
Take for example a girls’ volleyball player that used to move over to basketball in the winter now foregoing the sport to play club volleyball the rest of the year. This happens across the board.
I have seen baseball players every year stick to only baseball when they could be top players in football, basketball, or soccer.
For some it is the right move, but the number of players who move on to have successful college careers is minimal. The problem is so many parents look at their child through rose-colored glasses and see nothing but bright futures for their student athlete.
Lost in the shuffle is the reality of what lies ahead. Few will continue to play at the collegiate level, with the number that reach a professional level is miniscule – at best.
What is left for the athletes is no memories they could have formed playing different sports during high school.
I can honestly see both sides – you want to give your athlete the best chance to succeed and specializing seems the best course of action for that to happen. At the same time, students playing multiple sports is what defines a robust school athletic program.
By the time the athletes realize what they are missing, it is too late. Once you’re out of high school, there is no option to go back, no reset button. It will be 20, 30, 40 years down the line and there will be few memories to look back on and smile. For many it will be a load of regret they will have for not giving multiple sports a shot.
I can testify that my high school buddies and former opponents still bring up games we lived through and the friendships that were formed in sports. Some of the best athletes I grew up with played multiple sports and influenced different teams.
They turned out pretty darn good, with some advancing to the professional ranks.
The Amador Valley-Dublin football game in the 1978-79 season for the EBAL title will always be discussed for many reasons. I heard it brought up just last week and it is still hotly discussed – and in the end, usually laughed about.
I played for soccer for Ballistic United and Amador Valley and our rivalry with Dublin through all those years is something players on both teams remember as we have become good friends over the years. Legendary games, legendary players.
And guess what? There were several football players on both teams. Good football players in fact.
High school soccer is losing almost all the top players to club soccer. Once again, it’s understandable, but also sad that in the future there will be no discussion of memorable high school games with your best friends.
Repping your school is the best. The chance to wear the purple and gold (Amador colors) and represent the school was something we dreamed about as kids when we were playing pickup sports at either Kottinger Park, in someone’s driveway, or even their backyard.
Lack of dedication: More and more it seems like students are using sports as something for their resumes, not really for the love of the sport. In turn, most of those kids put in minimal effort and have little emotion, win or lose. I see it at the middle school level as well when kids don’t take practice seriously and at times don’t even show up at practice.
In conjunction with lower number of athletes the coaches are forced to play these students that blow off practice in order to field a team.
We have been working to get athletics going at the middle school level post-COVID, but the lack of dedication is at the core of failing.
The thought of just having intramural games where there is no score kept and no formal team structure is a very real discussion amongst administrators today.
Lack of coaches: As a result of everything mentioned above, as well increased parental dissent, something that I have touched on regularly - why would anyone want to coach?
While there are still good parents and good players, the families associated with the negatives seem to be growing each season. I am seeing less reasons to coach every year.
Almost all coaches have full-time jobs, then with all the extra hours involved in coaching with no rewards I can hardly fault a coach for concluding that it is just not worth it any longer.
There is no way you can please everyone and with the shaming from players and their parents - why coach?
In the Pleasanton middle school world, we have needed to delay the start of some of the seasons as we tried to get people to coach.
In one sport it resulted in teachers stepping up that had no training in the sport, but they just wanted to make sure the season took place. You must applaud these teachers.
Costs to play: This is a big one as well.
Since you can’t force a student to pay to play, it has to a be called “a donation,” for the athlete to play. With the amount these donations are climbing every year, it has become a financial burden for some of the families.
The problem is that many of the families that can afford for their child to play, are not paying their “fair-share” because others don’t pay.
At out middle school we have had a tough time collecting from our sports teams. It has been less than half. If you do the math, continuing to run a program that
always loses money means eventually that sport is going to go away.
The other aspect about the money – when these parents of high school athletes pay up to $600 a season for their son or daughter to play, they develop a sense of ownership. This in turn creates animosity towards the coach when
their child doesn’t get to play enough.
If I pay $600 for my son to play football, then he better be on the field is the thought process. It turns from the life lessons they can benefit from to the return on investment they make.
Officials: I recently ran a story about of the declining population of officials and the reasons why. There is understandably a good reason why younger kids are not getting into officiating.
The result of the lack of officials is leaving the pool of refs full of guys that have been in the business for over 20 years. They are being stretched thin to cover games.
I spoke with an older ref recently at a middle school game he was officiating. He said he was leaving the middle school and going to do two high school games that same night. He added that for his organization to be able to cover all the scheduled games he was doing 2-3 games a night, six nights a week.
That is going to wear on a person, and they will get out of the industry. With fewer people entering the industry – well, here is another math lesson – lack of officials means less games taking place.
Oh, I nearly forgot, last week there were parents heckling the ref – in an 8th grade girls’ basketball game. Our games this year are not about who wins or loses, but just getting the kids out on the field or court competing again.
Yet there was a parent willing to cast all that aside and loudly and embarrassingly chastising the ref.
What the future holds remains to be seen but there is not a lot of positive signs for the future of high school athletics. It may be 5-10 years away, but it’s coming as things stand now.
I still see examples of everything positive sports can bring to the maturation of a child. At the time I can see all the things that can ruin sports grow larger in the rearview mirror.
At some point school administrators are going to wash their hands of athletics and the issues.
It is like we must hit rock bottom before we can rebuild. Sadly, it appears that day will be here soon. We can only hope that the powers that be, will be willing to weather the storm.