Years of focused training and preparation lead today’s college athletes to arrive at their campuses stronger, faster, and more skilled than ever before. But a subtle off-court change has emerged in recent years that undercuts these same athletes’ chances for thriving at their universities. The separation of competitive youth sports from schooling presents a significant challenge to universities seeking to develop “student-athletes.” Whereas classwork and athletics used to go hand-in-hand, kids’ traveling sports teams are now isolated from – and sometimes placed in direct competition with – their academic pursuits. In order for student-athletes to be more ready to flourish when they arrive to their universities, leaders in the expanding youth sports industry and those in college athletics must recognize and smartly address this “de-coupling” of academics and athletics.
My own pathway through youth sports and into college illuminates just how much has changed. I played on my first organized basketball team in a 5th grade Catholic Youth League. We played about 12-15 games between December and February. I also dabbled in tennis, golf and football. All of these sports took place right in my hometown, South Bend, and were relatively laid-back. When one season ended, I moved on to another sport. My parents supported me, but did not seem especially worried about the outcomes of games, nor did they view sports as my ticket to college. By the time I was in high school and getting some attention from colleges for basketball, I joined an AAU club team that competed for a couple months in the spring. The team was made up of some of the top players in northern Indiana and we played in a few tournaments within our state. The team was sponsored by a local restaurant called “Tiffany’s.” I was thrilled that Fritz Helmuth, the owner of Tiffany’s, provided us with uniforms, paid our tournament and hotel fees, and, occasionally, even a free breakfast. He made a significant impact upon my teammates and me.
But the most serious teams I played on were always school-based. My high school coach – a math teacher in the school – controlled all aspects of participation on the team. He checked to make sure our grades were up to par and that we were behaving in class. He oversaw our weightlifting and off-season conditioning. And he was the gatekeeper to college recruiters. He received our mail from colleges, fielded phone calls, and counseled us on which places to consider.
My early pathway through sports was very similar to those of most of my peers who competed at high levels of sport. This pathway smoothly bridged me to the men’s basketball team at the University of Notre Dame, where academics and athletics continued to co-exist naturally, if more intensively.
Today’s youth sports pathways are altogether different from mine. One of the biggest changes is that sports and school are now separated from each other at very early stages. Children begin club sports well before turning ten years old. Among current Division 1 student-athletes, over 95% of hockey, baseball/softball, and soccer players began competing before age nine. The most talented young athletes travel nationally and compete in endless year-round games. Their teams have corporate sponsorships that pay their coaches and provide the kids with loads of fancy gear. The coaches often have little formal expertise and commonly prioritize winning over children’s wellness and development. Many club coaches are “handled” by apparel company representatives who wish to direct young players to the colleges that their companies sponsor. The coaches may have no sense whatsoever for how their young athletes are performing in school. As children advance to recruiting ages, these club coaches are often the primary gatekeepers through which college coaches must pass (as opposed to the high school coaches). These coaches are in the middle of some of the most noteworthy basketball scandals that we regularly read about.
This club team movement operates within a$15.3 billion youth sports industry that has grown by 50% over the past five years. Whereas my old Catholic Youth League games were played in cramped school gyms that smelled like popcorn, club games today are played in huge, beautiful facilities that are sprouting up to not only lure top young teams, but to build entire communities. “Communities Bank on Mega Youth Sports Complexes,” a recent article in Sports and Business,presents a telling example:
"Youth sports tourism is the name of the game in Westfield, Indiana, a community of 30,000 that opened a 400-acre, $49 million sports complex in 2014. The largest publicly funded complex of its kind at the time has exceeded revenue expectations: the facility brought in 1.5 million total visitors in 2016, which translated into some 60,000 hotel night stays and $162.6 million into the area’s coffers."
The not so subtle shift from youth sports as an extracurricular school activity to youth sports as a standalone industry, with coaches and administrators who command six figure salaries, has dramatic impacts on universities. Well over 90% of student-athletes arrive as 18 year-olds to their campuses having had most, and in some cases, all of their athletics experiences detached from the academic environment. In fact, academics are commonly sacrificed by jet-setting young athletes whose schedules hardly permit homework. Sports used to serve as a supportive factor for young people’s schoolwork. Coaches and teachers worked together and, in many cases, coaches were the teachers. So even as college athletic departments develop robust academic support services and compliance initiatives, they face a formidable challenge to decrease the increasingly extended and entrenched separation of academics and athletics.
We want student-athletes to flourish in both athletics and academics in college, but before a young basketball player can be tutored in calculus, he must be counseled that success in calculus is both necessary and possible. Both youth sports clubs and college athletic departments can play roles in addressing such challenges.
Some models, such as the “Erudite Basketball Program” in Pennsylvania and the New Heights AAU program in New York, have emerged as promising “re-couplers” of academics and athletics. Erudite’s mission is “to develop the basketball skills of young women while encouraging excellence in the classroom.” Erudite players are encouraged to maintain 3.5 or better grade point averages – while also competing against top basketball competition. Like school teams used to function in years past, this AAU program (and New Heights, which has a similar focus) operates as a supportive factor for academics. In this regard, Erudite is much different from its competitors.
An appealing college-level example of school-sport connection is found in the reigning national champion team from the University of Virginia. Head basketball coach Tony Bennett integrates T.J. Grams, the director of academics for men’s basketball, into the team’s everyday routines. Grams works with players across their entire trajectories in Charlottesville – from their initial enrollment through graduation – in order to educate about and emphasize the necessity of excelling on the court and in the classroom.
Erudite, New Heights, and Virginia Basketball lend valuable glimpses of how high-level academics and athletics can co-exist. We should take a cue from them and begin, in earnest, the re-coupling of school and sport.