As this article is being written, we are in the midst of National Signing Day, the day on which the talented and sought-after high school football players announce their intentions on which college to attend and continue not only their education but the pursuit of their chosen sport. Fax machines in college recruiting offices start humming at daybreak. Fans of their favorite teams eagerly watch the Web or their Twitter feeds as the coach or athletic department announce which of the players they’ve pursued will shine on their program with their presence, and friends and families of the players are ready to congratulate them as they don their future school colors.
In sports-crazy America, this has become a rite of passage for those players who have devoted uncounted hours and resources to playing the game. It starts early – even elementary school students have dreams of growing up to be a famous star on the gridiron, hardwood, diamond or pitch. Often, this becomes an exclusive pursuit, not just during the season, but in that young people find ways to train, condition and play their sport all year. There’s a cost to families as well, in equipment, practices, private coaches and trainers, and weekends spent at faraway tournaments. Associated Press writer Martha Irvine described youth sports as an “athletic arms race” in a recent article on the phenomenon. Irvine told of a young golfer who was so obsessed with improving her game that she entered thirty tournaments over one summer (an average of three per week), and a baseball player was so busy playing in four different games one Saturday that he missed a benefit for his best friend who was injured in an auto accident. Families aid this effort, and sometimes suffer from it, by giving up their vacation time and other plans, even selling vacation homes, because of travel to their childrens’ tournaments.
Yet, when you look at it realistically, only a minuscule percentage of high school athletes go on to play sports at big-time colleges. Fifty-nine percent of the millions of high school athletes in America believe that they will get a college sports scholarship, according to statistics from the University of Georgia, but only two in a hundred will even play in college, and less than one in a hundred will end up on the field for a high-profile Division 1 team. Few will receive athletic scholarships – far fewer than those who receive money for academic potential. And the odds of going pro? One in 16,000.
The chances that all of that training, effort and money expended will result in fame and fortune in the future are slight. Yet, all the time we see our youth leave the Scouting program or defer their involvement because they would rather devote their time, attention and money to playing soccer, hockey or baseball, not merely for recreational purposes but often because of a dream of getting that full-ride scholarship to a large state university or private college.
Scouting doesn’t have a high-profile “signing day”, other than perhaps the day that a Webelos Scout decides which troop to join and continue his Scouting adventure. To us, just about every day carries the magnitude of a signing day, in that the youth who have been involved in Scouting go on to do great things for others and for themselves. A boy who earns the rank of Eagle achieves something at least as magnanimous as one who is chosen to play sports in college, and often more so. Scouting builds leaders for the future. Yes, sports can build leaders, but much more often, it only builds participants.
The problem with sports fanaticism goes beyond the youth. Pushy sports parents are not a new phenomenon, but they are getting to be more and more prevalent. In Irvine’s article, Fordham University philosophy professor Bill Jaworski, himself a youth baseball coach, describes most parents of athletes as normal people “until you get them to the game and they turn into these rabid freakazoids.” Jaworski says that as a coach, he’s often “shocked and chagrined” at how easliy some parents lose perspective about their childrens’ sports. To be certain, there are a few freakazoid parents in our packs and troops, but a reminder of the values of the Oath and Law, and our purposes, often bring them back to earth.
Money is another huge factor in youth sports. If your child plays hockey, for instance, or you know anyone else who does, you know the costs involved. A friend of ours has two sons who play hockey, and must pay upwards of three thousand dollars just for the privilege of playing on the high school team. This doesn’t include the cost of equipment, coaching, practice time and travel, which can easily add several thousand more. Irvine’s article quotes one parent who figures she spends between five and six thousand dollars a year so her son can play baseball, and another parent of a football prospect who has spent as much as ten thousand dollars a year on private strength and conditioning coaches, exclusive training gyms and travel to tournaments.
Scouting is not without its over-the-top participation and cost. Although high-adventure and Jamborees can cost thousands of dollars and involve hundreds of hours of preparation, the average cost for a year of Scouting is less than the cost of a new set of hockey gear. Yet, in the end, Scouts are guaranteed of deriving some pretty exclusive benefits and experiences. Besides the adventure, the values of Scouting are instilled along the way, developing our youth to be better leaders and citizens in addition to experiencing some high-level physical activity. These benefits and experiences are largely unavailable anywhere else, yet they are available to any youth who wants to walk through our doors. And Scouting is inherently a “no-cut” activity. Any boy who wants to be a Scout and walk the trail to Eagle can do so, without having to try out or compete for a spot on the team.
So why isn’t Scouting the hands-down winner? The BSA realizes that we are losing “market share” among our “total available youth” and is changing to meet the times. Realistically, however, it would take a major change in public opinion to shift away from sports to Scouting, just as it’s improbable that a hidden valley exists where children gladly eat their vegetables.
Parents of young athletes do often put it all in perspective. The mom of the baseball player quoted in Irvine’s story says she works to keep her boys’ sports expectations in check. “It would be great if they got a scholarship for sports. But it would be better if they got a scholarship for academics. That’s what will get them further.” Yes, Scouts too can qualify for scholarships, particularly if they are Eagle Scouts, but any boy who has had the opportunity to lead his peers and make real decisions that affect others stands a better chance in college and in life than one who just follows along.
The difference we as Scouters make is made one boy at a time. The time we spend with our sons, and our friends’ sons, will pay dividends down the road. Maybe not in an athletic scholarship, but in a lifetime of leadership and helpfulness. I see it already in my college-age son and have seen it in dozens of other boys who have been in our troop. I’m sure you’ve seen it in yours, too. And while Scouting may not be able to compete with sports stardom for some, we can do our best to be a positive force in our communities and spread the word about the benefits of our movement to those who view us as just another youth activity. The Georgia State study advises high school athletes “If you think you’ve got what it takes, then, by all means, you should pursue it. It is important, however, to be realistic. Have a backup plan.” (Emphasis supplied) Shouldn’t that backup plan include Scouting?