High School Sports

State of high school sports: Welcome to the specialization era

Editor’s note: This is first in a four-part series looking at the biggest issues and challenges of high school sports.

Lakes High School football coach Dave Miller reviewed all his school’s student-athletes who went on to play college sports. Two of them were wide receivers Jermaine Kearse and Reggie Williams.

Both reached the NFL, but before that they were multi-sport athletes at Lakes. Kearse not only played football, but was a basketball and track and field star, too. Williams placed fourth in the triple jump at the state track and field championships.

“Some of the better athletes we’ve had,” Miller said, “whether it’s Reggie Williams, Jermaine Kearse, whomever, they were all multi-sport athletes.”

So just where have all the multi-sport athletes gone?

WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese said there’s no doubt that fewer student-athletes play multiple sports.

Overall participation rose to more than 160,000 student-athletes in the 2014-15 school year, according to the WIAA, but the organization doesn’t track multi-sport statistics.

Specialization has risen alongside select, club and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sports. Athletes who play basketball, volleyball and soccer, especially, specialize because they can play year round. Seven-on-seven camps have essentially become football’s version of AAU, even if it’s played in shorts and a T-shirt.

“I think it’s asinine that coaches at the high school level would tell Sally, ‘Hey, you should only be playing this,’ ” said Stadium High School football coach Thomas Ford. “It not only isn’t good for the athletes as a whole, but it creates a lot of situations to increase the chance of injuries.”

Coaches have also seen a rise in athletes getting burned out.

“I can say, being a parent of a baseball player, come June 1 and having them play all through the summer, they are exhausted, they are worn out, their arms are shot, injury risk is huge,” said Fife softball coach Michelle Nixon.

“My 17-year-old kid is done with baseball. And I’m sure that some of my other girls are done with softball at this point.”

Miller’s research aligned with that of ESPN’s, which found that of 128 NFL quarterbacks surveyed — 73 active and 55 retired — 122 played at least two sports in high school and nearly 70 percent played three or more. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was drafted in both football and baseball.

Lake Stevens quarterback Jacob Eason, the University of Georgia commit who is considered one of the top quarterback recruits in the country, also played on the school’s basketball and baseball teams last year.

Playing multiple sports isn’t always that simple for student-athletes.

Tamia Braggs, an incoming senior and two-time Class 3A Narrows League MVP for the Lincoln High School girls basketball team, said the cost of sports and her college dreams are what led her to give up volleyball after her sophomore year.

“Sports cost a lot of money, I’m not going to lie,” Braggs said. “During the summer, AAU costs over $1,000 to $2,000. We got to Washington, D.C., Georgia and Las Vegas in one month. So playing only one sport, even that costs so much money.

“And it’s just like, if you really want it that badly, you dedicate yourself to that one sport and that’s how bad I want it with basketball. I dedicate myself to that sport, to the money it’s going to cost to play and that’s what it is. If I were to play multiple sports, that’s just a lot of money on my parents and it’s on me, too.”

Said Wilson boys basketball coach Dave Alwert: “It’s tough. When you got the kid who is sport-specific, but you know he is going to a high Division I school, and you know he’s going to have to work, it’s hard to tell him, ‘Yeah, I think you should go play different sports.’”

Not to mention the time it frees.

Jasmine Parker-Borrero won the 135-pound state girls wrestling title as a freshman for Wilson last year and also plans to participate in soccer and track and (in which she placed seventh at state in the triple jump). She said she’ll wake up at 5 a.m. to run, come back, take a shower, go to school, take Advanced Placement classes, go to practice, go to select soccer practice and then nationals training for Judo before finally getting home at 11 p.m.

Top that off with homework, family obligations and maybe even a job.

Not that she minds.

“I think you should do multiple sports because, at least for me, it provides me with multiple opportunities to go to college,” Parker-Borrero said. “One college may offer me this, but there may be a better college that offers me for a different sport.”

Specialization is far more common at bigger schools, where athletes might fear not making the team, so they focus their efforts on one sport. But it has the potential to destroy programs at smaller schools, such as Cascade Christian.

“The decline of multi-sport athletes is really hurting us bad,” Cascade Christian football coach Randy Davis said. “There’s only a finite number of athletes at a small school and some of them are playing basketball only or others are playing baseball only.

“It seems like the parents are the ones pushing it, telling their kids that they are going to be the next great football or basketball player. That’s the thing that really frustrates me, especially with basketball.”

John Miller, the WIAA assistant executive director, said college coaches tell him they want multi-sport athletes. Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer tweeted a chart that claimed 42 of the 47 recruits the coach signed were multi-sport athletes in high school.

But that’s not typically what athletes are being told by select coaches and camp organizers, who can coach athletes for 80 games in a summer as opposed to a high school coach who gets 20 games in a season.

“From my perspective, it’s our responsibility and our role to make sure the kids and parents understand that there is a greater value that club sports have in their own mission. Ours is educational,” Colbrese said. “Our role is to keep making our system better and to be able to explain what it means to help that student grow and to be a better citizen.

“As long as we keep that at the forefront, it’s not our role in the sense to compete with AAU, it’s our role to compete with ourselves.”

TJ Cotterill:253-597-8677



Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune