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The recent firing of Rio Americano High School football coach Christian Mahaffey, though behind us, opens the door to a larger, troubling issue: the professionalization of youth sports.
The landscape of youth sports in America has changed from a culture of leisure to a climate of business in which adolescent athletes are treated as de facto professionals. Old models providing children with a healthy educational sports environment are giving way to a new paradigm in which winning really is the only thing, college scholarships the only real goal.
Guillermo Salazar, the Rio Americano student at the center of the controversy that cost Mahaffey his job, was caught between a rock and a hard place.
You may recall: Mahaffey was fired after refusing to reinstate 11 players who quit the team in support of Salazar. Mahaffey had booted him from the squad for choosing to skip a football game to attend this weekend's baseball showcase, the Arizona Senior Fall Classic, something he'd notified the coach about three weeks earlier.
"It's a monster tournament," said Jeff Rattay, who ranks Arizona's high school athletes a vital cottage industry within the youth sports ecosystem.
"We're talking over 400 college recruiters and pro scouts, and huge waiting lists for teams to get invited. If this kid was invited, you don't say no. He'll get followed next spring just for coming to this tournament."
Salazar's fall travel team was invited. He plays travel ball because a three-month high school baseball season isn't enough anymore. Year-round travel leagues offer kids the chance to hone their skills while specializing in the sport they see as a college meal ticket.
"Players and families look at the showcase as a marketing tool," Arizona high school baseball coach Jeff Shillington told me, "one they don't get just playing a regular scholastic high school session."
Shillington coached his Sunnyslope High School team to a state championship this year. He's very familiar with the showcase Salazar attended this weekend. While a marketing tool for players, it's also a timesaving business tool for recruiters and scouts.
"In one weekend, they'll see 150 players rather than travel to multiple schools and multiple games to see maybe two players at a time," Shillington said.
It's simple math for families seeking scholarships to ease the enormous financial burden of a college education: travel ball, club ball, select ball and sports showcases are compelling opportunities.
Not just in baseball and not just in high school.
In an article for Parenting Magazine last year, Los Angeles mom Carol Mithers noted how scouts for competitive private clubs would appear at her daughter's recreational soccer games, looking to pluck the best talent. One scout actually "signed" the team's star player to a travel club, which also required the player to sign a commitment barring them from playing other sports.
It's not uncommon. "Coaches want their players exclusively," Shillington said.
"One of my better baseball kids was also a football player who wanted to attend the same showcase this weekend, and the football coach said, 'If you miss, you'll be kicked off the team.' The player quit the football team."
In Mithers' case, however, the child whose parents signed this "exclusivity agreement" was just 8.
"Over the next few years," Mithers wrote, "more and more of my daughter's teammates 'went club.' By the time my daughter joined them at 12, the club's director noted that she'd 'started late.' "
Using the travel team as recruiting tool is common in nearly every youth sport, including basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, says Jim Danzer, who coaches rec youth soccer in Davis.
"Parents leave rec ball and pay exorbitant fees for their child to play travel ball 'because we want him to be able to play on the high school team,' hoping that increases their child's chances of attaining a sports scholarship, even though less than 2 percent of high school athletes ever get one, according to the NCAA.
"You're even getting kids who say they don't need to play high school to get a scholarship anymore," Danzer said. "You make your mark on summer teams, travel teams, the right amateur team."
It's how Salazar got invited to the Arizona showcase through his travel team, not his high school team.
Is this what we want? Coaches so demanding of a player's time that they give up all other sports? Kids playing only the sport offering the best shot at a scholarship? Can we really judge parents faced with steep college tuition costs? Should youth sports be fun or a financial pathway?
Rec ball can still provide the "fun." In the Rocklin Girls FastPitch Softball League, my 13-year-old daughter has been lucky to have coaches who've prioritized the improvement of skill sets and the development of character traits like confidence, discipline, resilience, teamwork.
Progress on those fronts is how her coaches define winning, not the scoreboard. As one coach once said, "I'd rather win at life, than win a game."
"Youth coaches are ideally situated to affect the trajectory of a kid's life through sports," says Jim Thompson, CEO of the Stanford-based Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit organization intent on transforming youth sports so kids can have a positive experience. Many pro sports figures are on its board, including former Lakers coach Phil Jackson and current and former Giants managers Bruce Bochy and Dusty Baker.
Since its 1998 founding, PCA boasts of having impacted more than 4.5 million youth and high school athletes through over 10,000 workshops for coaches, parents, school administrators and youth sports organizations nationwide. One of those organizations, incidentally, is the Rocklin Girls FastPitch Softball League.
Thompson founded PCA after seeing a "win-at-all-cost" mentality in youth sports while coaching his son's baseball team. Yet, despite the organization's best efforts and a growing awareness of the problem among academicians, the win-at-all-costs mind-set remains pervasive in youth sports.
"We've designed a very competitive childhood as a means for preparing children to become functional adults," says one child psychologist. " 'It's a cruel world,' we tell children, 'You have to be on top.' "
Former NBA player Bob Bigelow, author of the 2001 book "Just Let the Kids Play," says this new world has one overriding philosophy: "Getting better means training more, training harder, training younger." Even at age 8?
We lament pro sports being "all business," and college teams obsessing over bowl money. What did last year's sex scandal say about Penn State's priorities? And now this "business" attitude is seeping into high school and youth sports.
Whatever happened to, "it's just a game"?
"It's a business," Shillington said. "This is the way things are going.
"It's not going back."
He wasn't exactly happy about it.