Jayne: Battle between club, high school sports continues

Greg Jayne: Commentary

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor



One week from now, Washington will have hundreds of newly crowned high school state champions.

In team sports such as baseball, softball, and boys soccer. In individual sports such as golf, track, and even field. In classifications from 4A to 1B — seasons will culminate and memories will be made over the next week.

Which brings up a question: Why?

Why are high schools still in the business of sports? Why do educational institutions regard athletics as part of their mission? Why don’t we leave athletic training to the club system, like they do in Europe?

Maybe it’s because there’s so much more than sports being taught.

“My generation, we played club sports to prepare us for high school season,” said Moe Perez, Columbia River’s 26-year-old volleyball coach. “Now we’ve seen a shift. I think kids are playing high school to get ready for club.

“I value high school sports for what they bring to a school as a whole. There’s a deeper meaning to high school sports.”

Which might be the best answer to the question of why. High school sports remain a communal activity, an opportunity for teenagers to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves.

Not that Len Stevens agrees.

Stevens spent a career as a college basketball coach, including a stint at Washington State from 1983-87. He recently spelled out, for an article that received some national attention, the reasons he thinks high school sports should be as dead as Lindsay Lohan’s career.

Reasons such as a lack of coaches who also are teachers, and a lack of interest from fellow students, and a plethora of parents who are bigger pains than a root canal.

Stevens has a good point. He has a lot of them. There’s no question the landscape of high school sports has changed. For top-notch high school athletes, club sports provide better competition, more frequent competition, and more attention from college coaches.

In soccer, volleyball, baseball, softball, basketball, and other sports, the bulk of college recruiting is done during the club season. Why would college coaches go to a high school game that might include one prospect playing with and against middle-of-the-road talent when they can go to a large club tournament and watch dozens or hundreds of prospects?

That is a problem for high school sports. At least it is if you think that landing a scholarship is the purpose of athletics.

“I’ve seen kids not play a school sport because they’ve been recruited to play a club sport,” Camas football coach Jon Eagle said. “They miss out on playing with their friends; they miss out on the school experience and the status that goes with that.”

That came to a head this spring. The club soccer circuit expanded its season, which led to several elite athletes not playing for their high schools. That move tweaked a few noses among people who care about high school sports.

“I think when the clubs like the soccer organization think they’re more powerful than the educational system, that’s just wrong,” said Al Aldridge, who spent 31 seasons as girls basketball coach at Prairie before moving on to Clark College this spring.

“I think the emphasis on academics, that would be lost. I think there’s that accountability to coaches and teammates in high school sports.”

And there’s accountability to your accountant. High schools in the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts charge a maximum of $50 as a participation fee. Traveling club teams can cost up to $2,000 or $3,000 when you add in the hotel and travel costs for families to follow their athletes.

“Here’s what I’ve noticed: You have a lot of people who will say anything positive about your kid to keep the checks coming,” Eagle said. “People exude that if you have to pay for it, it must be better. I don’t think it is better.”

Yet athletes can have their loyalties torn between club sports and school sports.

“That’s a tough question,” said Erin Sprowls, a junior volleyball player from King’s Way Christian whose club team recently won their regional championship. “I have a lot of friends on my high school team; I see them every day. But winning a regional championship with my club team was amazing, it was awesome.

“I just love playing high school sports. Having your friends come out and give you support, the school can be so united.”

Sounds like a pretty good reason for celebrating all those state championships next week.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne