Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The end of amateur athletics

At triathlons and bike races, my friend Greg and I like to comment upon the bike "porn" that is present. And by "porn", we mean super nice bikes that the person using it may or may not deserve to be on. Unfortunately, the quality of the bike plays a large role in your success at the higher end of the sport, but in the middle ranges, you can be successful without the nicest equipment.

This is an example of bike "porn". Integrated cables, hidden rear brake cables, carbon wheels, etc. These bikes can easily cost $5-10,000.

In fact, with triathlons, through determined effort, regardless of equipment, you can usually be successful. The definition of success can vary, but with triathlons, you can usually end up with placing in your age group, or with a personal record at a particular distance, and call your effort and training satisfactory. 

The definition of success changes when the sport changes. In triathlons, you can be successful and still be an "amateur", meaning that you have no sponsors that help cover your costs. I believe that in many sports, starting at younger and younger ages, it is no longer possible to be successful and still be considered "amateur".

Much has been written about the end of amateur athletics at the college level, and that collegiate athletes should be paid due to, in some sports, the college making money off of the efforts of the "unpaid" athletes. I believe that the end of amateurism is slowing eating away at younger and younger athletes, particular at the high school level and below.
According to their own internal study, Johnny Manziel produced more than $37 million in media exposure for Texas A&M, not including jerseys, shirts, etc were sold because of his talents.

First, two definitions: success, and amateur. For me, success means that you are able to compete at at least one level beyond the "normal" level (for example, the "postseason"). This past year, I was the swim coach and the JV boys water polo coach for the high school where I teach. For these sports, one measure of success would be competing beyond the normal league play. There are, of course, many ways of measuring success beyond playing at a higher level, such as marked improvement from previous years, a better win-loss record, improved skills among the players, etc. But for the arguments within this post, success will be measured as being able to compete beyond league play.

The definition of amateur is trickier. For most, the definition means that you are not paid to play in a sport, and you do not receive any benefits from your abilities in that sport, such as discounted or free consumer goods. I am going to bend that definition: To be considered an amateur at the high school level, you can spend no more than 2 out of the four seasons playing in that sport (fall, winter, spring, summer). So you can do cross country and track, but in the winter and summer, you are not consistently training. In California, you can play water polo and swim (fall and spring sports), but in the winter and summer, again, not consistently training. 

Why this particular rule? Because for most professionals, they only compete in that sport, and do little else. For a high schooler to be doing one sport during a particular season, it is difficult for them to manage their time commitments to that one sport and any other activity they are in-it is hard to be on the football team, and also be in the school play, etc. For students that are participating in a sport beyond two seasons, it means that the student likely doesn't do much else besides that particular sport, just as a true "professional" puts his/her efforts into one particular endeavor.
These actors play football players, but you are unlikely to find them in a real high school.

The reason why I am changing this definition is that I believe that it is no longer possible to be successful as a high school athlete and be only that-a high school athlete. If you only participate in a sport during the high school season, in most sports, I believe that you will not reach post season play, particularly in any individual sport-cross country, track and field, swimming, tennis, and golf. It may still be possible in team sports, but less likely, unless on the team, you have someone who is a "non-amateur" who is able to carry the team to the postseason.

Gone are the days where you can be a 3-sport athlete and be successful at all of them. Gone are the days where you can only participate in a sport only for that season. Why? Because of the rise of "club" teams. (As a note, my youth was spent swimming on year round club teams. My parents drove me to and from practices and meets that were far from home (the further away the meet was, the more likely that location was referred to as "East Jesus". I could never tell where exactly that was, but I knew it was a long way from home.))

According to the internet, this is a real place. I never had any swim meets there though...

For students to be even make it on a team now, they must participate on club teams (formerly called AAU teams, particularly for basketball). These teams have existed for some time in swimming, but now exist for basketball, baseball, volleyball, field hockey, softball, etc. You name the sport, there is a private club team that exists for it. These teams train year round, all seasons, and travel all over the place to compete. Practices are frequently 5 days a week, and 2 hours a day. The clubs start at young ages, some as young as 5 or 6 years old.

The AAU stands for Amateur Athletic Union. They should put the a disclaimer on their logo, with the warning that it is anything but amateur.

So now you have kids that are playing sports at a competitive level at a younger age, and by the time they hit high school, many of them have been playing the sport for several years. It used to be that students would play basketball in the winter at an organized level, and then maybe soccer in the fall, and baseball/softball in the spring. As the kids got older, some would choose to specialize in a particular sport, so by the time they hit high school, they "focus" on one sport.
This type of athlete should be put on the endangered species list, because their numbers are going down...

For a kid to take this more traditional path, the decision to focus on one sport in high school may be too late for him/her to be successful, for their peers may have chosen to specialize earlier. Now, the kid that has been playing other sports and participating in other activities is simply competing for a roster spot on a team against kids who have dedicated substantially more time to a discipline than they have. Now the question is not whether or not the kid can make it to the postseason, it is can the kid make it on to a team.

If the kid can make it onto the team, the kid is now competing against other similarly stacked teams full of other club athletes. The level of competition is higher, and the chance for success is lower, unless a fair number of the athletes likewise play club.

For the sports that I coach and participate in (sticking with water polo and swimming), it used to be possible to be an "amateur" and still be successful as recently as 5-7 years ago. If you were talented and dedicated, it was still possible, but very difficult, to reach the post season in swimming. In northern California, the post season in high school swimming is NCS. Now, that is not the case. All the athletes swim year round. The slowest kids that are barely qualifying for the meet now would have made the top 16 finals 8-10 years ago. You can check the results here. If you take a closer look, you will see that three people broke the high school national record in the 100 breast. THREE. And the high school national record wasn't set by anybody, it was set by an Olympian by the name of Brendan Hansen.
This guy, if he was a high schooler at 2013 NCS meet, would have placed fourth. He has won 6 olympic medals and at one point held two world records. 

Now, in my mid 20s, I occasionally talk with my friends about staying in shape, and what we do for fitness. My friend Danielle (who is blogging about her experiences applying to medical school here) said that she was doing some conditioning after studying. I picked up on that word-conditioning for what? The word choice implies that she is doing more than going to the gym to stay fit, but is training for an event. I inquired further to find out that, even though she is "retired" (her words), she still does gymnastics occasionally (Danielle was a collegiate gymnast for William and Mary). Again, interesting word choice. Danielle and I are both not even close to the retirement age. But the word choice again implies that she was a professional.

I definitely benefitted from being a part of a year round team, and the time and effort that I put in definitely fell under my definition of professionalism. I was able to do so because my parents had the ability and time to get me to and from practices, pay for the coaching, etc. But this is not the case for everybody. Not every student has the dedication, and not every family has the means to participate on these club teams, lowering the student's chances of being successful at a sport in high school.

Is this a good thing? I am not so sure. What are your thoughts? 

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