Out of Bounds

Are club teams and unrealistic expectations ruining the sports experience for kids?

There is a story in local high school coaching circles about the time--not that long ago--that the Salpointe High School girls basketball team went to Phoenix a couple days before Thanksgiving for a season-opening tournament.

As the team filed into the locker room at halftime of the game, two of the team's starters began taking off their uniforms and changing into street clothes. The coach, puzzled by the girls' actions, asked what was going on. The girls' response: "We're sorry, Coach, but we have a (club) softball tournament in L.A. and our parents think it's more important that we go to that than stay here."

Two things about that story: First off, one of the girls happened to be Tairia Mims, the former starting first baseman for the NCAA softball champion UCLA Bruins and currently a member of the USA National Select team that won the world softball championship and clinched a berth in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games a couple weeks ago in Saskatchewan. (This certainly brings a knowing nod from all of the ends-justify-the-means people out there.)

The second thing is that, even though this story is less than five years old, it doesn't elicit shock or even mild surprise these days. Heck, most high school coaches probably look back at that time as the good old days when kids would at least feel a little bit guilty about choosing a pay-to-play outside activity over the opportunity to represent their classmates and school.

WHEN JESSICA ARNOLD was a freshman at Tucson's Palo Verde High School, the day after her first season as the starting point guard for the Titan varsity squad ended, she did what prep athletes had been doing for nearly a century. She took a deep breath--sighing at the abruptness and harshness with which the hoop season had ended in that playoff-game loss--then went out to the track to start preparing for her spring sport. Earlier that school year, she had made a similar transition from volleyball to basketball.

While she'd certainly raised a few eyebrows with her poise on the basketball court, she had observers absolutely agog over her track prowess. She quickly established herself as one of the top sprinters and jumpers in Southern Arizona and often had a hand in anywhere from a third to a half of the points her team scored in a meet. She won the conference title in the 100 meters, anchored winning relay teams and did well in the long jump. Certainly, down the road, she had a state title (or several) within her grasp.

She missed out on competing most of her sophomore year because of a serious shoulder injury and subsequent surgery.

This past year, the junior re-emerged as one of the top point guards in the state. However, when the basketball season ended with a crushing first-round playoff loss, Jessica didn't go anywhere near the track. Instead, she spent her weeknights and most weekends in a car with her mother, going back and forth to Phoenix so that she could participate on a pay-to-play team, the (ahem) Arizona Elite. (Many of these teams have names that are usually reserved for escort services, like Gold, All-Star, Elite or Premiere. A couple years back, a team from back East took things to the next level and named itself the "Elite All-Stars.")

Arnold's rationale is simple. "First of all, I love to play basketball and this gave me a chance to play it year-round against good competition. But there's also the fact that I want to play college basketball, and this is basically the only way I can get a scholarship to play. You're not going to see a college coach going to a high school game to see (an athlete) play. But a lot of them show up to tournaments where my Elite team plays. That's the best way to get seen. That's just the way it is."

Sad, but (mostly) true.

The confluence of unrealistic parents, spoiled college coaches, greedy entrepreneurs and wide-eyed teenage (and pre-teen) athletes has created a perfect storm where variety is supplanted by myopic obsession; love of sport is shoved aside by the all-consuming pursuit of the scholarship; and that glowing archetype of American culture--the high school athlete--is being derided as anachronistic and the last bastion for small-timers.

More than 4 million boys and 3 million girls played one or more high school sports last year (more than ever before). But, at the same time, anywhere between a few hundred thousand and perhaps as many as a million participated in so-called club sports. (The participation figures vary according to the amount of hucksterism in the respondent.) What is certain is that business is booming, fueled mainly by parents who have left living vicariously through their children in the rear-view mirror and are barreling straight ahead to the Land of Complete Delusion, with an assist by highly paid coaches, many of whom aren't certified to coach in the schools but are thriving in the club world.

With the exception of soccer, the phenomenon of pay-to-play sports is not all that old. Most club teams have sprung up in the past 20 years and a substantial number have done so in just the past five years. Originally, club teams served as sort of an adjunct to the high school teams, giving one-sport athletes (who used to be rare but are now becoming the disturbing norm) the opportunity to play their sport of choice outside of the regular season.

About a decade ago, Tucson kids would practice a couple times a week with the club team (once on the weekend and maybe one weeknight), occasionally play in a tournament in town or maybe in Phoenix and make some new friends from other schools while honing their skills in preparation for the next year's high school season. A large number who played club sports back then also had the time keep up with their studies and to play on their high school teams in whichever sport was in season. (Girls would play club volleyball and high school softball at the same time, for example.)

Now, club teams practice three or four times a week. There are tournaments a couple times a month all over the country, and trying to juggle studies, club and prep sports is a fool's mission. Club Cactus, the top club volleyball program in Tucson, used to hold tryouts for team placement according to age and skill level in mid-January, with practice beginning in February. This meant that most kids could play high school volleyball, the season of which ends around Halloween, and then play most or all of the high school basketball season as well before club volleyball would start.

These days, Club Cactus (and virtually all other volleyball clubs in the state) holds its tryouts the first Sunday of November. That means that if a kid's lucky enough to play for the state championship with her high school team, she will have less than 24 hours between the end of her high school season and the start of club.

And, believe it or not, that 24-hour buffer between the two seasons makes volleyball perhaps the most progressive and sensitive of all club sports.

HOW DID IT GET this way? Brian Peabody, the boys basketball coach at Salpointe High School, has one easy answer.


Peabody, who is on track to someday be the winningest high school basketball coach in Arizona history, eyes the rise of club sports with disdain. "The people in many of these 'clubs' are selling a wild dream, one that will only come true for a very small percentage of the kids, and the parents are all too willing to buy into it. Most of these club people don't even have to do any selling. Parents are climbing all over each other to get their kids on a team."

When Peabody first got the job at Salpointe, after wildly successful stints at Green Fields Country Day and St. Gregory College Prep, he ran headlong into the club problem.

"I had this one kid--nice kid, good ballplayer--whose dad thought was the next coming of Michael Jordan or something. The kid was already playing on a club team and I really didn't have any leverage to get him to stop. He and his dad were convinced that the club was the best way to go to get a scholarship.

"The real problems started when the kid would play for me. Let's say he's coming down the floor with the ball on a fast break. I might prefer that he do one thing, but the club guy might want him to do something else. Now, all of a sudden, this kid is thinking, 'Let's see, am I wearing the Salpointe jersey right now or the club one? What should I do?' It's like he's trying to serve two masters. Plus, I don't even want to think about all the problems caused by his missing team workouts and functions because of the club, and the big problem of him thinking that's he's better than his high school teammates because he's on some 'elite' team."

Peabody dealt with the problem as best he could the first couple years, but after reaching the State Class 5A semi-finals in 1996 and establishing his program as one of the best in Arizona, he put his foot down. He told all incoming freshmen and prospective Lancer basketball players that if they wanted to play basketball for Salpointe, they would play basketball only for Salpointe. If they wanted to play club, he'd wish them luck, but he didn't want them around. In exchange for that, Peabody would take his Salpointe team to many of the big-name tournaments, where they would compete against "elite" and "all-star" teams from the other cities and get the same exposure in front of college coaches as all of the other players.

Such a stance is by far the exception and not the rule. In all fairness, a handful of high school coaches actually want their players to play on outside club teams, either for the experience and exposure (or, as in the case of at least one coach in Tempe, because the high school coach supplements his income by running a club team in the off-season). Most high school coaches, however, view the clubs with distrust, if not open animosity--but, for a variety of reasons, are unable to do what Peabody has done.

Pete Fajardo, who coaches the girls team at Salpointe, took the Lancer girls to their first-ever state final game last season in his first year of coaching the team. A long-time assistant to Peabody, Fajardo is experiencing the same growing pains that his mentor did.

"I've got girls on this team who are absolutely convinced that they're going to get college scholarships and that the only way to get one is to play on a club team at some of those tournaments. I've already gone to the feeder schools and told the middle school kids that if they and their parents insist on the club route, perhaps they should consider going to another school."

The tournaments about which Fajardo speaks are something to see. Some are absolute orgies of excess where, contrary to the old saying, money talks, but bullshit talks almost as loudly. This year's national AAU Tournament will be held July 22-26 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. More than 400 teams will pay an $800 entry fee for the tournament. The cost of transporting the teams and putting them up in hotels falls to the players and/or the clubs, many of which are "sponsored" by athletic shoe companies. Nike, Reebok and others throw lots of money at these teams, outfitting the players with top-of-the-line shoes and buying them uniforms and warm-ups. They also often pick up the airfare and hotel tabs for the teams, which, in part, explains why a pair of basketball shoes at the mall will cost the average schlub a couple hundred bucks.

That's just part of the story. The hundreds of college coaches who flock to the tournament will fork over $125 each for a "packet" of information on the various teams and their respective top prospects. Then, for good measure, tournament organizers charge $10 admission for each session at each site.

Some folks think such tournaments are heaven.

"What's wrong with that?" asks University of Arizona assistant mens basketball coach Josh Pastner, who planned to be in attendance in Las Vegas. "You're going to have thousands of the top basketball players in the country and hundreds of college coaches all in the same place at the same time. That seems like the perfect situation to me.

"A lot of people look back with nostalgia at some (idealized) scene of the college coach sitting up in the bleachers, watching a high school basketball game. Well, that's just not realistic. Big-time college basketball is a year-round thing. We're constantly evaluating players and working on recruiting. These tournaments just help make our jobs a little bit easier."

Pastner has worked for several years with Houston Hoops, an AAU program that produced Ndudi Ebi, who originally signed with the UA, but at the last minute listened to the chorus of little whispers and decided to try to go directly from high school to the NBA. Pastner is intimately familiar with the workings of the AAU, which ostensibly stands for Amateur Athletic Union, but in reality has only been athletic for the past several decades.

"I hear all the criticism of AAU ball," Pastner says. "The kids are pampered; they're pumped up with false expectations and then discarded if they don't pan out. I know all about the shoe deals and the money changing hands. And I'm aware of the few unscrupulous coaches."

Most of the club coaches, however, deal simply in scholarships, or, more precisely, the promise thereof. The more scholarships they can wrangle for their players, the more and better the kids they can attract the following season--and the more they can charge per kid. This had led to a situation that got so out of hand, the NCAA banned all contact between club officials and college coaches at tournaments. It hasn't, however, prevented some club coaches from making outrageous claims that include guaranteed scholarships and a 100 percent success rate.

Nevertheless, Pastner continues, "Even with all that, I still support the system as it is. I'm a glass-overflowing kind of guy, and I see a lot of positives. Kids get to play the sport they love; they get to see different parts of the country, they get to play against great competition; and they get to be seen by hundreds of college coaches. Plus, it keeps them busy and off the streets. That may sound trite to some, but I sincerely believe it."

Jessica Arnold concurs. "I've really enjoyed my club experience. I love to play basketball, I love competing against the best, and I love getting better. Club gives me all of that.

"My mother and I didn't go into this with our eyes closed. We knew that it would be hard getting to the practices in Phoenix and that I would have to give up things in order to do it, but everybody has to make choices in their life. I knew I'd have to give up track; I like track, but I love basketball."

She recently returned from a weekend tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif. and is looking forward to a couple more out-of-town trips this summer. Earlier in the year, she went to North Carolina for a tournament and got to play on the courts at both North Carolina and Duke.

"Those places are like legends. It was great," she recalls.

(But not everything has gone smoothly for the Elite. The team's best player, 6-foot-4-inch Rachel Bailey, from defending Class 4A state champion Thunderbird High, abruptly quit the team after announcing that she was "sick of basketball.")

Arnold's mother, Robin Roberts, says that it hasn't been easy, but she and Jessica think it's been worth it. Roberts figures that she and her parents, who help cover the costs, have spent at least $10,000 for club expenses and travel.

(This is chickenfeed compared to a woman profiled in an article in the Los Angeles Times. The woman had two daughters who liked to play multiple sports. She forced the girls to choose one sport and promised to give them all the financial support necessary to achieve success, i.e. a scholarship. The girls chose softball, so the mother got them on a traveling American Softball Association (ASA) team. The mom then kept meticulous records of finances. In the six years from the time they started until the younger sister completed high school, the mother paid out more than $140,000. The results? The older daughter got burned out on softball and quit both ASA and her high school team before her senior year. The younger sister continued playing and ended up walking on at a local junior college. Lamented the mother, "I could have paid for them to go to an Ivy League school.")

Money wasn't the only tough thing for Roberts and Arnold. "All those trips to Phoenix ... I'm a teacher and Jessi's a very good student, so we'd drag ourselves into the house at midnight and then have to get up the next morning and go teach and go to school. It definitely hasn't been easy, but few things in life that are important are easy."

NOT ALL KIDS TAKE up club sports with the visions of scholarships dancing in their eyes. Elise Ware, a senior-to-be at Amphitheater High School, passed on playing (free) summer league basketball with her high school teammates to pay $550 to play ASA softball with the Scramblers, an 18-and-under team consisting of players from Flowing Wells, Tucson, Amphi and Cholla High Schools.

"It was a tough decision because I really like basketball, but I told my dad I would devote all of my energy to one sport this summer," Ware says. "I just wanted to play a lot of softball and have fun, and ASA is the only way I can play all the time."

Ware has heard all the stories about coaches guaranteeing scholarships--and she thinks it's wrong. "I know girls who think they're going to get some big scholarship. They count on getting them and don't have a backup plan."

A straight-A Honors Academy student who's in the running to be her graduating class's valedictorian, Ware should be able to pretty much attend the college of her choice. She would like to find one that excels in the teaching of her as-yet-undetermined field of study, but she's also like to continue playing ball, if at all possible.

"I know I'm not very tall and I'm not some star player, but I'd like to play a sport if I could," she says. "But, I'm not going to go to some random college in Maine just so some coach can say he helped get me a scholarship."

IF THERE HAVE BEEN philosophical skirmishes and verbal shots fired across the bow between club and prep coaches in basketball and some other sports, it's all-out World War III in the world of soccer.

A few years back, the clubs extended their season to where it would culminate in a big blowout on Thanksgiving weekend. The only problem was that the same weekend marks the start of high school play. This meant that kids would have to either blow off one of their teams or knowingly violate Arizona Interscholastic Association rules that prohibit playing on a club team during the official high school season. Most kids chose the latter, with the clubs encouraging the breaking of rules.

As tensions mounted between the two sides, club coaches began first to criticize and then to ridicule their high school counterparts. Several club coaches mocked the high school programs, calling prep soccer "inconsequential" and complaining that it took several weeks to rid the players of all the bad habits they had picked up playing for their respective high schools.

It all boiled over this past year in Phoenix as several Class 5A schools had to consider canceling their season altogether because all of the soccer players at the school simply refused to stop playing club for the three months that make up the high school season.

This is all very troubling to Dave Cosgrove, a local soccer coaching legend who has a unique perspective on the tumultuous situation. Cosgrove coaches the nationally ranked Pima Community College Aztec mens soccer team, as well as a nationally ranked club team. He also somehow also finds time to coach the boys soccer team at Amphitheater High, which he guided to the state semi-finals a few years back.

"Let me state this clearly," said Cosgrove in a phone interview from Hawaii, where he was coaching his club team in the west regionals of the national tournament, "I believe in the three-sport athlete. A lot of the guys I get at Amphi are guys who played football and come out for soccer because they enjoy competing, or they're guys who want to play soccer so they can go into baseball or track season in really good shape. I am not a fan of what amounts to the forced specialization of young athletes. I think there's a lot to be said for playing high school sports. There are social benefits and the sense of pride that can only come from playing for your school.

"At the same time, if an athlete just wants to play soccer year-round, the club is available for him. That's fine, but clubs and high schools shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, an awful lot of parents see club sports as some sort of investment. 'If we pay this amount of money right now, we'll save a ton on college costs.' That's not why a kid should play."

When asked to what he attributes the extreme animosity in soccer, he points to the internationalism of the sport. "In many parts of the world, the local soccer club is the focal point of an entire city. It's much more than just a team. I think kids who play soccer here buy into that mentality."

Cosgrove also acknowledges that a lot of the bricks and mortar being used to build a wall between the clubs and the schools is supplied by the club coaches. "I know guys in Southern California who make $70,000, $80,000, $100,000 a year just coaching club. It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise that these guys aren't real happy about the prospect of losing their players and that money for one-fourth of the year while the kids go off to play high school soccer for free. I've always thought that if you get into coaching to make money, you're in the wrong place."

When told of the situation up in Phoenix, he seemed troubled.

"I hadn't heard about that, but it doesn't surprise me. A lot of club coaches think that the coaching at the high school level is inferior. I know that we don't have that problem in Tucson. Part of the reason is Wolfgang (Weber, the Salpointe boys soccer coach who also coaches club teams in the off-season). People have such respect for Wolfgang that they wouldn't do anything to hurt the high school season."

(Salpointe hosts the season-opening Brandon Bean tournament Thanksgiving weekend.)

Asked what can be done to restore some balance and decorum to the entire mess, Cosgrove replies, "I don't know. It would be an absolute tragedy if the high school athletic experience were to go away. It's such a wonderful thing. It has a small window of opportunity and it provides great memories for the rest of a person's life.

"At the same time, sports shouldn't become like a job for kids. Soccer shouldn't be played just so somebody can get a scholarship. If they get a scholarship, great, but play for the love of the game.

"Soccer and basketball and baseball are games. They're great games. But they're just games."

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