Before embarking on the Varsity Blues series, we started with two questions.
Are high school sports dying? If so, what's killing them?
After months of researching and reporting, this is how we end it:
No, high school sports aren't dying. They are suffering in some areas and thriving in others. Funds have decreased and player entitlement has grown, but training and competition have never been better.
Mostly, high school sports are changing.
The athletes and parents have changed. The coaches have changed. The culture has changed.
"I think I am probably less worried about the state of high school sports than I am about how some general things of working with adolescents and young people and having all the messages that teachers try to get across, that impact (being lost)," Plant football coach Robert Weiner said.
"It's a battle. It's a battle every single day. There's more and more things we try to teach in football that every single day become more counterculture."
Focus on the positives
While the dozens of coaches, administrators and experts we talked to are unsure how to fix many of the problems — and let's face it, some are unfixable — they aren't ready to give up.
They see real value in high school sports, as a way to fight obesity, decrease dropouts and teach life lessons.
"If it's done right, it provides 101 ways for kids to learn and grow and create lifetime memories, and I think most people still get that," Clearwater boys basketball coach Tom Shaneyfelt said.
That's why high school sports aren't going away, even as budgets get tighter.
Pasco County has considered trimming athletics each of the past six years to save money. And each year, sports have been spared.
When prep sports are at their best, they connect with their communities in ways AAU and travel teams cannot.
Plant is renowned for its game-night atmosphere, where T-shirts — Weiner jokes there might be more than 150 styles of Panther shirts floating around in the community — fly off tables manned by team moms, and Robert Schoos' band creates an atmosphere unlike few others.
Pickup trucks line football and baseball fields in Dade City and Zephyrhills. Neighbors near Tarpon Springs High put maroon and white balloons on their mailboxes before home games. Lakewood's stadium is often crawling with 'Lil Spartans — pee wee football players eager to be the next high school stars. When longtime Land O'Lakes football coach John Benedetto died, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford took time out from the legislative session to mourn his former coach.
"Our community, without a shadow of a doubt, is the reason we can continue to function in athletics," Hernando High athletic director Kevin Bittinger said. "It's amazing what they're willing to do to make sure our kids can look good, feel good and be able to compete."
Although coaches bemoan the bleacher-seat quarterbacks, most parents are supportive. Dan Gould, the director of Michigan State's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, estimates 70 percent of parents are fine, and another 20 percent of them just need a little redirecting.
"Most parents aren't bad people," Gould said. "They're trying to do the best thing for their kid. We just never told them what the best thing is, so they go read the scoreboard."
Some of their children use their own scoreboards, tracking every college offer and memorizing their rankings among recruiting services.
But focusing on the few high school players who earn scholarships overshadows the humble majority — the ones who will never play on Saturdays or Sundays and are left with Friday nights they'll never forget.
"If we accept the fact that 3 percent of the kids in Florida get collegiate athletic scholarships, that means there is 97 percent that don't," said Denarvise Thornton, the Florida High School Athletic Association's director on compliance and eligibility. "I guess at the end of the day, do we want to develop programs and policies geared towards the 3 percent, or do we want to develop programs and policies for the 97 percent?"
Although many of the issues facing high school sports have no solutions, experts we talked to offered some suggestions.
Communities — parents, businesses, neighbors — can be more involved. One organization has already contacted the Tampa Bay Times to ask which area schools need the most financial help.
Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso would like to cut transportation costs by having more schools buy buses and getting coaches licensed to drive them. He also encourages his schools to raise money through fundraisers or grants to buy turf fields, which can be used for youth and high school activities to strengthen the bonds between schools and their communities.
Hudson football coach Mark Kantor gives plaques to businesses that sponsor his team's golf fundraiser. That gesture lets stores boast that they're supporting the local school while allowing Hudson to show it is involved in the community.
"We want them to give to us," Kantor said, "and we give back to them."
Club and high school coaches can work together on recruiting and skill development, so players get the best experiences possible on both teams.
St. Petersburg soccer coach Rui Farias doesn't want his players to have to choose between playing at a club tournament with a hundred college recruiters watching or in a high school game, so he doesn't schedule prep games during big tournament weekends.
"I think everyone is on board with this now," Farias said.
Communication is also key to taming the minority of parents and players who are irrational or entitled. So is education.
Bob Bigelow, a former NBA first-round draft pick, youth sports crusader and author of Just Let the Kids Play, gives 40 talks a year on the subject of developing healthy athletes and parents while their children are in youth leagues.
"Trying to get to the horses before they get out of the barn," Bigelow said. "I'm doing my damndest."
And so are many others. On Amazon alone, there are more than 1,000 books offering advice for those mixing sports and parenting.
Pasco County athletic director Phil Bell said coaches have a responsibility to have more frank, tough conversations with players and their families about what — if any — college opportunities might be available.
"You don't want to crush dreams," Bell said, "but you have to be realistic."
That task has become harder, as websites tout the college possibilities of elementary schoolers and teens grace the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.
Recruiting, like youth sports, has become big business and isn't disappearing. Even newspapers, which for years generally limited their recruiting coverage to signing days, has jumped into the numbers soup of offers, oral commitments, rankings and ratings.
Coaches and parents can't stop the avalanche, but they can monitor social media to keep players from getting carried away and developing egos that won't help them when the recruiting frenzy stops and the real world begins.
"Everyone is so worried about that next level, they're not enjoying this level," Bell said. "What's wrong with having a good high school experience?"
That experience is transforming but still teaches the same lessons it has for decades.
Student-athletes learn about commitment, accountability, teamwork, diversity and sportsmanship. They learn respect and redemption. They learn how to win, and they learn how to lose.
Where else can you find all of this in one two-hour event?
"Most of us play in high school and then wish we could do it again," Clearwater's Shaneyfelt said. "It's not perfect. It's constantly changing.
"It may not be totally pure, but it's still as pure as it gets."
Staff writers Bob Putnam, Rodney Page and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam. John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.