The exploitation of athletes is hardly a new phenomenon, but the alarming rate at which the private high school sports machine is targeting young student athletes should be a red flag warning for parents and students alike. It’s an ugly truth that deep pocketed private high schools are building a multi-million-dollar business off the backs of young athletes, not unlike college athletics. On the surface, recruiting is hardly a negative. After all, being part of a higher profile athletic team as a pathway to a D1 college scholarship, and hopefully a pro contract, is the Big Dream.
Unfortunately, in the last five years some of the top private schools with respectable athletic programs have aggressively – and in my mind, excessively — stepped up their game recruiting the best athletes from middle schools and other high school programs. They do this with seductive offers of housing, giving parents jobs driving the athletes, jobs on campus as security guards, and so forth. Worst of all, they often lower the academic requirements to land promising 13 and 14-year-old kids.
How do they get away with it? Simple: private schools in California, for example, are protected from California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) guidelines if their academic structure is faith-based. Furthermore, the CIF apparently does not want to take legal action blocking kids from transferring to a school for “religious reasons.”
The end result is that these rich private school programs are now able to land recruits from certain demographics by taking them out of competition with local public schools, allowing the private schools’ programs to attract significant dollars by winning more games, bringing in more sponsors, increased booster support, new facilities and national recognition for their brand. Sounds like college athletics, right?
Private school proponents argue that the model exists to provide life-changing opportunities for those who might otherwise not follow a higher education path. Yet these schools often fail to provide any life skills for these kids, who are lured and captivated by the dream. If 15 students in each recruiting class get a scholarship, less than 10% usually stay all four years. Although this can be due to their performance on the field, most often it’s their painful realization that the dream has been oversold by the recruiters.
Consider a typical situation: most athletes from out-of-the-area neighborhoods can spend 4 hours driving to and from school. Student athletes have to leave their house by 5 a.m. and will return home after practice around 8 p.m. It is a logical conclusion that the resulting loss of study time and sleep could cause the athlete to lose his/her eligibility and scholarship. So much for the dream.
Also favoring private schools and sports academy programs is the fact that they are allowed to offer recruiting trips often hosted by former pro alumni on campus, giving students early access to top athletes. Public schools, on the other hand, have no chance at competing because they are sanctioned by a governing body such as CIF that ban recruiting or even hosting local kids from meeting with the athletic department before the students graduate from 8th grade.
The litany of excessive tactics employed by some of these private high school recruiters is long. Establishing something akin to a secret relationship with the athlete via social media is one example, to determine his/her family needs so a package deal can be constructed. Parents’ egos are as susceptible to stroking as much as the child and, as a result, they tend to overlook the value of building a solid foundation and support system that can turn the student into a blue chip player.
I learned the nature of the recruiting business at a young age as a college and NFL football player. Now heading the nation’s only charter school mentoring middle school student athletes (grades 4-8), I have made it a primary objective not to let my student athletes be manipulated by the system or be brainwashed by recruiters. Someone has to be the buffer between vulnerable 13 year olds and experienced recruiters looking to exploit our young athletes. I recognize — and in fact work to create– opportunities by placing student athletes in a great environment for their physical and mental well-being. However, I also understand from my personal experience just how harmful a bad environment can affect a student athlete’s life.
In the end, it’s critically important for every student athlete and their families to recognize that pursuing the professional sports dream is a minefield. The dream is important, to be sure, but navigating the pitfalls of zealous recruiters selling the dream demands caution, awareness and communication.