Thursday, December 14, 2017

Parents grate in quest for playing time, scholarships

In the name of their shot-taking, ball-dribbling, pass-catching, bat-swinging children, some parents are crossing a line.

Play my kid more, they demand. Why isn't she starting, they ask. Where is my scholarship, they want to know.

A mother takes both of her kids off a 14-1 high school softball team with state championship aspirations moments after it won a big tournament, because while one daughter was starring, the other was barely playing.

A dad threatens to sue a coach who isn't playing his son enough, claiming the boy's college scholarship chances are being ruined.

A baseball player is kicked off a team in Hudson for missing school, so the dad makes signs criticizing the school's administrators and waves them from a McDonald's parking lot right next to the school.

There are arguments, heckling, back stabbing, conniving, even fights. Outlandish behavior, by almost any standard.

No wonder, then, that Hillsborough High football coach Earl Garcia quips: "If I could be the head coach at an orphanage, that would be good."

Involved or intrusive?

The majority of parents, coaches will tell you, are terrific.

They help raise money, feed players, run concession stands and cook burgers on Friday nights.

They are vital in the development of their children, in the classroom and on the field. They are encouraged to be involved.

But there is a growing concern about the parents who see their roles as player agents and promoters.

"Every kid needs an advocate," said Pasco High athletic director and football coach Tom McHugh. "When I started doing this, the advocate for the athlete was the coach. I think it's still that way, I just think for some reason there are people who don't feel that's enough."

Moms and dads complaining to and about coaches is nothing new. But in the past 20 years, those coaches say, parents have grown more aggressive and more demanding, resulting in boorish and disruptive behavior.

"We've done some other studies where we ask coaches about what are the biggest problems for them today. Parents come out on top," said Dan Gould, of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State.

Locally, you don't hear much disagreement.

"I think parents are more involved than ever," said Phil Bell, Pasco County's athletic director. "I think parents oftentimes don't turn their kids loose to experience the highs and the lows. … You're gonna get coaches and teachers and employers you don't always see eye to eye with. Sometimes you have to deal with it and suck it up.

"It is a struggle. I recognize as a parent, it is a struggle to let our kids learn these life lessons on their own."

Tom Mayes, a police officer and father of Berkeley Prep junior quarterback Brad Mayes, says he can sympathize with parents who are stressed about their child's future. As a former youth coach, he has lost friends after arguments about playing time and who was better than whom. He thinks it can go too far.

"I understand it. They are trying to help their kids," he said. "Parents can see this as their only way to get their kids out of a bad situation or to get a free education. It becomes a really desperate situation … but some of them just aren't realistic."

Mayes is hardly desperate. Brad is a highly rated quarterback and has a college offer from Massachusetts, and Tom has paid off a prepaid scholarship plan for his son's college.

Still, it's easy to get swept up.

"Sometimes I think I'm even over the top," said Mayes, who follows all the recruiting sites and talks with analysts and college coaches and frets about Brad getting a scholarship to play in college. "But my sons are the most important things in the world to me and I want the best for them."

Talk of earning a scholarship is endemic on the sidelines of youth sports and in the stands of high school games. But when the offers don't come tumbling in and the pressure builds, the anger spills over in many forms, usually right on the head of high school coaches.

"When I started coaching in '74, at the end of the season you'd have parents who'd actually come up and say, 'Thanks, Coach, for spending time with my son,' " Garcia said. "Now it's, 'You (expletive), he didn't sign a Division I scholarship.' "

Scholarship the goal

In pursuit of athletic excellence, parents start their kids earlier in sports, with the wrong intentions. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns it can hurt cognitive and physical development.

"I had a call last week from a parent who said they were getting pressure that their 6-year-old son should be playing year-round, which means 70-80 games a year,'' said Greg Dale, a professor of sports psychology and sports ethics at Duke. "It just breaks my heart to think that they might buy into that."

The investment of time and money associated with developing an athlete — expensive club and travel teams, specialized coaches, personal trainers — by the time they even get to high school can be staggering, and its effects negative.

On the low end, it costs a couple of thousand dollars. On the high end, James Makarome estimates he spends $40,000 a year on tennis for his kids, Wiregrass Ranch junior Star and incoming freshman Noah.

At various tournaments, he has seen parents led off in handcuffs and was once challenged to a fight by another parent in a parking lot.

"The better the players are, the crazier the parents," Makarome said. And that's because the pressure is greater — sponsorships and scholarships are competitive, and there's a huge financial incentive.

This pressure doesn't just turn parents bad, it can have devastating effects on the athletes.

"They have to have their kids win at all costs," he said. "I find a lot of the kids feed off the parents."

Parents are so invested, kids become stocks and mutual funds, with an expected return.

"They may not consciously think of it like that," said Dale, "but that's exactly what it is."

And it's not a great investment, if the only acceptable return is a scholarship.

According to the NCAA, about 2 percent of the more than 7 million high school athletes competing earn a sports scholarship. And only two boys sports, football and basketball, and four girls sports — basketball, tennis, gymnastics and volleyball — offer full scholarships.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy says most scholarships are sliced and diced among multiple players. Half scholarships and quarter scholarships are awarded more often than not. That makes the average scholarship around $10,000, which won't come close to paying the costs at most schools.

"This idea that sports scholarships are going to pay for college in almost all cases is wrong," said O'Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution and a blog of the same name.

According to NCAA data from 2011, fewer than one in 16 high school football players will play in college. For boys basketball, those numbers dip to one in 35, three in 100 for girls basketball and fewer than three in 50 for boys soccer players.

The odds are dismal.

Still, many are unfazed.

A few ground rules

Most coaches have meetings at the beginning of the season to prevent problems during it.

Complaining about playing time, most often the biggest point of contention between player and coach, is usually taken off the table.

"In the spring I'll sit down with the parents and we'll go over everything. How we handle road trips, how we run practices, everything," said Stefan Futch, baseball coach at Osceola. "I tell them if they have any questions, ask them now. This is the last time we are going to talk to each other. After this, I'll see you at the banquet.

"These are young men. They need to know how to handle their own problems. If they think something isn't right, come to me; don't go to your parents."

Some coaches allow parents to attend practices so they can see just how hard their child is working. Tampa Prep basketball coach Joe Fenlon even sets out chairs for them.

"Parents are more than welcome at our practices," he said. "I rarely get 'em."

For years, Clearwater Central Catholic football coach John Davis heard from other coaches about boundaries with parents, but rarely employed them.

But the bickering from parents — he had a booster club president quit once because his son wasn't playing the position he wanted — finally became too stressful.

So when he returned to CCC two years ago, he told parents at the initial meeting they could talk to him about anything — grades, girlfriends, troubles at home — but he would no longer talk to them about playing time.

"First of all, (the player) already understands why he isn't playing," Davis told them. "We preach that constantly and tell them why. They may not be coming home and telling you that."

When the meeting ended, Davis didn't even make it to the cafeteria door before two dads approached him.

They wanted to know if their sons would be starting in the fall.

Staff writers Matt Baker, Rodney Page and Joey Knight contributed to this report. John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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