It’s Not Free College

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

A recent Time Magazine cover story titled, How Kid Sports Turned Pro, Crazy Travel, Crazy Cost, Crazy Stress provided accounts of multiple families spending upwards of $100,000 in lessons and travel expenses to ensure their sports-playing children had the best training and played on the most competitive teams. The author surmised, “There may be no single factor driving the professionalization of youth sports more than the dream of free college.”

I’ve read many other articles like this one before. All take a balanced and “unbiased” approach to their description of the families. The author tries to appear non-judgmental. But the parents inevitably seem to come off as being abnormal, maybe a little crazy. The question is always, “Why would they do it? What is their motivation?”

Consistently, these writers bring up college scholarships, as if that is the ultimate and only reason parents go to such lengths. It is as if authors are either jumping to that conclusion or unable to find any other answer. My experience, when my kids were young and playing, was that college scholarships were never thought of. We were all just hoping our kids would be able to make the high school team.

Things have definitely changed since then. Billions of dollars are being poured into youth sports in the form of mega-complexes and elite tournaments drawing kids nationwide. There are even travel coaches using social media to form super teams that fly in 9 and 10 year players from thousands of miles away.

But what these authors also don’t seem to know is that the majority of college scholarships, especially in boys sports that are non revenue (meaning everything except football and basketball), are rarely full-ride. Most are only partial, like 25%. The average person hears “college scholarship” and thinks that means 100% tuition and room and board, or, “free college”.

But, my guess is, that the parents who are the subject of these articles are fully aware of this. They are also probably smart enough to understand that if they are spending upwards of $20,000 per year on lessons, fees and travel that they could, instead, invest that same money and ensure that their kids college is paid for.

I believe these parents main motivation is their egos. It becomes their identity as much as it does their child’s. They say things like, “It’s his passion, I’m not going to crush it.” When really what they mean is, “It’s my passion, it’s who I am, and I’ll pay anything to keep it going.” And if these parents are thinking ahead to college it’s probably not with the notion of it being free as much as it is the dream of being able to say, “My child got a scholarship to play (fill in the sport) for (fill in the school)”.

It will be interesting to see where all of this new crop of kids ends up in ten or fifteen years. Will the tens of thousands of dollars spent and miles traveled translate into the next Bryce Harper or Mia Hamm? I remember when my son was 13 and we tried out a very competitive travel team for the first time. I thought it was crazy because this team was taking players from all over the city. Nowadays, that’s commonplace. The best player on the team, probably the best in all of San Diego, was a big, strong kid who had a swing like you couldn’t imagine. He had a private swing coach, which was unheard of, and it showed. The ball came off his bat differently than any other player. He was head and shoulders better than anyone there.

When I looked him up years later I learned that he did play college baseball, but for a very small program and he didn’t play much. He didn’t ever get much bigger than when he was 13 and maybe, I’m just speculating, he lacked some intangibles you can’t pay for. Several of the players on that 13 year-old team ended up having far better careers.

I’d like to see someone tell these “over-the-top” parents they know of a financial adviser who can guarantee that if they give him $20,000 per year, their child’s college will be fully paid. Next, tell them they know a private coach who also costs $20K/year who will promise a decent chance at a 25% athletic scholarship. Then report back to us and let us know which guy they called.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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