By Susan Luzzaro
Is it curtains for high school sports? Are high school athletes playing their hearts out, but nobody’s scouting them for scholarships? Are club coaches, who are also school coaches, recruiting student-athletes? Will all student-athletes have a level playing field?
Joe Heinz, Sweetwater Union High School District’s athletic director, made this surprising statement to the board of trustees July 13: “Over the last ten years far and few between is there a coach that comes to a high school [game] to recruit kids, they are getting those kids in the outside club region. The [club] parents know that, and that’s why they’re willing to spend those tons of dollars to get that exposure for their kids, because in a college recruiter’s mind [at the club games] he’s seeing kids at the highest level playing against similar competition.”
According to board dialogue, club sport fees can range from $1200-$2500.
Heinz said the lure of the clubs is a country-wide issue and that his research reveals that some even believe club teams might be the end of high school teams.
In an evolving response to the situation, Sweetwater schools have begun to create out-of-season opportunities for student-athletes so that coaches can continue to work with students to hone their skills in winter baseball teams or summer basketball teams, etc.
Until now the Sweetwater’s out-of-season programs have varied from school to school, but trustees are anxious to see uniformity in the district. Heinz, in his July presentation, stressed that “this is a big animal.” Heinz is tasked with bringing “consistency and equity” to out-of-season sports.
The inherent problems are: facilities use, wear and tear on facilities, where to get liability insurance—and money—how to collect it, and how to ensure appropriate oversight of it. The other issue that needs to be addressed is, according to the California Interscholastic Federation, CIF, the teams need to be separate from the school and the district.
Heinz has suggested two ways to address the programs. As these are Sweetwater students, one route allows the athletes to use the facilities for free. Nominal fees would be paid by students, coaches would be unpaid, and coaches would obtain insurance and oversight through an outside agency.
The other possibility introduced by Heinz is that out-of-season teams would obtain 501(c)3 non-profit status. This would allow the out-of-season teams to have fund raisers and booster clubs. If the teams went this route they would likely pay their coaches and the district would charge the teams for use of the facilities (courts, fields, weight rooms, etc.)
Both routes are intended to allow coaches to continue to work with their student athletes after the playing season is over. Both routes could induce students to stay in the school programs.
The discussion on sports between Heinz and the board was wide ranging. Trustee Frank Tarantino brought up some hypothetical problems with walk-on coaches, coaches who are not regularly employed by the district but receive stipends for their seasonal work.
Tarantino asked—what if a coach is also the coach of a club team and sends emails to the parents with the logo of his or her club? In other words what if the club coach is recruiting from the school teams? Heinz said this was a topic that required further investigation.
In a July 21 interview Heinz said it was very difficult to recruit coaches. In the old days he said the coaches were drawn from teachers and staff, but now 82% of the coaches are not employees of the district. He also pointed out that elite athletes have big tournaments and it’s critical for our sports program to be enhanced and that to get a coach with background and training was a plus for the program.
Another challenge for Heinz is to equitably address the needs of a very large district with diverse funding opportunities. In the end, he said the trustees might consider a combination of the two approaches when they revisit the topic in September.
CIF San Diego Commissioner Jerry Schniepp said on July 21 that Heinz had shared his plan with him to address the out-of season teams. He applauded Heinz for his efforts, but he said it’s very complicated and hard to fit several programs into one mold.
About the forces driving change in the sports world Schniepp said, “We are an organization that is not built for the 1% of the students who are going to play beyond high school; we want to be that venue, we want we want those quality athletes participating, but the fact of the matter is that 98-99% who compete in high school athletics are not going to play beyond high school and we want to make it a positive experience that isn’t overly demanding, that allows them to have a life, and that allows them to succeed academically and have fun as well as be competitive.
“I get the club world and I think there’s a lot of positive to it, but I also think it’s geared to the individual and the exposure of individual, increasing their visibility and their skill level. But high school should be, in most cases, about the team and about learning the life skills that athletics teaches students. It’s about putting the team first and seeing that there is life beyond the individual and this program is bigger than me as an individual. It teaches those skills that athletics teaches that are difficult to find in any other setting.”