A recent article by The Guardian’s Les Carpenter highlights the biggest road block keeping the United States from developing the best players: our pay-to-play system. The racial and class divide caused by the overwhelming expenses of youth soccer is something that US Soccer must work towards ending.
Some of the world’s best athletes, whether they play in the NFL, NBA, play soccer, or even compete at the Olympics, have come from some of the most unfortunate circumstances. All of those issues are covered well in Les’s article, which I recommend reading before reading on.
I can’t say too much more about the pay-to-play issue of grassroots soccer. It is what Americans know, it is how our system is. It is what I grew up on, and it will take a long time to change it.
One place that wasn’t discussed in that article was high school. High schools are publicly funded, even the sports programs. How do those inner-city kids play football and basketball? Even when teachers have to be cut, the low-income schools have found ways to fund their sports teams, to help keep the children focused and out of trouble. With major debt on the horizon for many school districts, sports are finally getting the axe. Despite the outrage of parents and many in the community, some schools have closed their sports programs to free up money to fund their schools. This is a rare occurrence, but has been increasing more and more over the past few years.
So we might have lost a few schools, but there are still plenty that poor student athletes can attend, and play their soccer for no charge. If they play well, they may get a scholarship, and become the first in their family to make it to college. Roll credits. Except this movie doesn’t end that way.
Soccer scouts purposely ignore high school soccer as they prefer to travel and watch academy teams that play in centralized tournaments so they can see a huge amount of talent in one centralized area. This costs a ton of money for the teams and parents, especially the travel costs. To add onto that, the students future college coaches and coaches of the academy teams all tell their players to not play high school soccer. Most outright ban their players from getting near high school soccer.
Possibly the greatest soccer player to come from my hometown of Jackson, New Jersey was Tarek Fayed. Tarek was a hard-working, creative number 10. He was able to dance up and down the field with ease, terrorizing other high school teams in only his freshman year. When he joined the New York Red Bulls Pre-Academy, Match Fit Chelsea USSDA Academy, and the US Youth National Team, high school soccer became a no-no.
Can you blame these coaches? Have you ever watched high school soccer? Even at some of the best levels, there are crushing tackles, injuries everywhere, and a lot of America’s favourite tactic – kick-and-run. Kick the ball high upfield, chase, and hope for the best. How will our most skilled players gain anything, besides maybe a career ending injury, from playing soccer for their high school?
Okay, so scouts won’t come to watch a lower-class student play for their local high school. But hey, the parents will buy a camera and send in some clips of their kid, maybe that will drag a scout or two out to watch them. Don’t forget that includes the need for a computer, and a basic video editing software. How many lower income families know how to use those things, let alone spend around $300 at the very minimum for a decent camera and basic computer? If they have this money, they may as well use it to pay for their child to play on a team that will help them get exposure. But as Les Carpenter’s article states, that would be upwards of $1,000 at the lower end.
They might want to save any of that money, because they’ll need it to pay for high school soccer. “Aren’t high school sports supposed to be free?” They always have been, and always should be. But now pay-to-play has entered the fray. High school sports are no longer free. In a growing trend, many high schools are making participants pay in order to be on the team. You can train all you want, but you cannot play in a game until you pay up.
I attended a high school which implemented that system. The program was literally called “Pay To Play.” You would log into a website, and pay upwards of $50 for a season. If the student came from a lower in-come family and qualified for a “reduced lunch,” then they would pay as low as $10 for a season. The reason given for this program to was to pay the salaries of the coaches.
My high school, Jackson Liberty High School is a middle class, predominantly white school. There was opposition to the program but most could afford the pay-to-play fee without any problems. It was more of an opposition to the fact that high school sports have to be paid for. Now this is happening in a middle class, suburban, white school. What is going on at an inner-city, debt-ridden school? Do they have to pay for sports? How on earth can they afford it, if so? The result is that these lower-income students are being stripped of their only cost-free option to play soccer. Now let’s say they fork up the money – the financial burden is over right?
Let’s not forget, many schools, including my high school, have cut transportation for sports and after-school activities. You need a ride home from practice, not mention a ride to and from weekend practices. How many low-income families have cars? And if they do, they are normally working during the time practice is over.
Lower income children will feel left out in other parts of high school sports culture. Using my high school as an example again, there were quite a few times I could tell the less fortunate felt uncomfortable. The first time I noticed this was during pre-season summer practices. Many humbly asked for a car ride, asked for water bottles, and even shin guards. That is all normal and can be swept under the rug, but then comes the time for pre-season training camp.
Coaches in the United States are expensive. Our school hired SST which is a soccer training program with former professional players. It was pretty useful, but the cost is where things start to get ugly. It cost $80-$100 for each player. If you didn’t go to the training camp, 1) You would be missing out on key training and not be in the same shape as the rest of the team, and 2) You would be benched for the pre-season games, and really risk your chance at a starting spot, along with losing fitness and game rhythm from not playing.
A few people turned their noses up at this, and walked away from the team. Then there is the fundraisers to put money in the team’s account and pay for banquets, jerseys, jackets, etc. One of the fundraisers was Yankee Candle. Each player needed to raise a minimum of $100. Objectively looking at it, who the hell would buy overpriced candles that you have to wait for to be delivered, when you could go to the mall down the street for a cheaper price. The family usually foots the bill for this one. These are examples of one school district from a middle class town. The way a inner-city school districts handle their sports, especially soccer (if they even have it), could be completely different.
Pay-to-play is an issue bigger than soccer, it pertains to all sports, and could see a huge decline in success from US athletes at international competitions.
I have a few questions which I feel need answering:
- Will this trend of pay-to-play entering high school sports continue?
- Is pay-to-play burning the last bridge for lower-income students to have an athletic career?
- Have Local Governments, PTA groups, or Congress looked into pay-to-play high school programs or attempted to ban them?
- What caused a divide between college/professional scouts and coaches and high school soccer? Why is high school prime real estate for scouts of other sports but a barren wasteland when it comes to soccer?