ENQUIRER IN-DEPTH: As sports fees rise, more students forced to sideline
Michael D. Clark reports
Kendall Knudson knows first hand the pain of soaring pay-to-play high-school sports fees. Those fees sidelined the Lakota East sophomore – and countless other area teens – this spring.
What’s more, Kendall is forced to think about Lakota Schools’ record-high $550 fee per sport whenever she huddles with her former teammates prior to a track meet to cheer them on. Then she takes a disappointing walk to the stadium stands to watch.
Across Ohio, an increasing number of teens and their families are forced to make similar decisions due to rising pay-to-play fees. Though nearly unheard of among public high schools in the 1980s, the fees for high-school sports became more commonplace in the late 1990s, before skyrocketing in the last decade as state school funding woes escalated.
A recent analysis by The Enquirer shows that 82 percent of the 49 school districts in Southwest Ohio charge pay-to-play fees for high-school sports – some, like Lakota, at record high rates. In Northern Kentucky, such fees remain relatively rare.
- Enquirer database: Area high schools charging to play
- Information: Community Foundation’s athletic fund
- Which sports do you think should be cut to fund academics?
In districts where a student plays several sports and no cost ceiling exists, a family can dish out thousands of dollars each year for their children to play high-school sports.
Come fall, Lakota’s two high schools will again charge $550 per sport with no family cap – making it the most expensive rate in Greater Cincinnati. The Butler County school district and its financial woes – brought on by recent tax levy losses and years of lagging state funding – is mirrored among other Southwest Ohio school systems.
Struggling family finances forced Kendall to choose between cross country or track. Track lost out.
It was a heartbreaking decision, says her mother, Jackie Joyce. “But last year I spent more than $900 on school sports.’’
The fees – exacerbated by the still-ailing economy – are shrinking sports participation, educators say.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ most recent Ohio survey (2010-11 school year), 328,430 boys and girls participated in high-school sports. That total is down 6 percent, from 2007-08. Kentucky showed a 1.4 percent drop in that same time span.
Lakota was forced to combine some teams this past year among its junior highs due to lower participation. Little Miami Schools – which charged one of the state’s highest pay-to-play fees of $651 per sport – dropped junior high wrestling because it was unable to fill a team roster.
Scott Smith, a former Ohio high school athletic director, is chairman of Central Michigan University’s department of physical education and sport, where he has studied pay-to-play fees. Smith says spot checks and anecdotal evidence paint a grim trend for many of America’s 7.6 million high-school athletes.
“I’m continuing to see districts nationwide that did not have the fees in the past but do now or are increasing them,” Smith says. “This makes it increasingly difficult for families whose children want to play sports.”
With no end in sight for Ohio’s decades-long school funding woes, school sports officials say the fees are here to stay at many high schools.
“That is the reality that many school districts are facing now,” says Tim Stried, spokesman for the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
Highest fees in region take toll on participation at Little Miami
Participation in Little Miami Schools’ sports programs dropped 40 percent last year. The Warren County district, which is in state-designated “fiscal emergency,” saw its 16-member boys track team shrink to five this year.
A recent track meet saw the five teens compete against other high schools – most with 40 or more members.
“It came down to money,” says Little Miami High School boys track coach Josh Chasteen.
The 40 percent dropoff in participation was so severe that the district recently cut its $651 sports fee to $350 in 2012-13.
Lakota saw a 14 percent drop in high-school athletic participation this year after increasing its fee from $300 to $550.
Lakota West junior tennis player Nick Lang says the fees may keep him sidelined next year. “I’m a little stressed out about the fee,” Lang says.
So is his mother, Mary Kay Lang.
“We’re still trying to pay for all of this spring’s tennis fee,” she says. “And right now we have no idea how to pay for next year’s sports.”
Princeton High School parents Nicole and Allen Clay say they will be able to afford it when the Hamilton County school district institutes pay-to-play in 2013-14.
They worry, however, about lower-income families in Princeton, which includes the widely impoverished Lincoln Heights community.
“I’m concerned if the kids suffer from that loss … and the negative activities they can get involved in instead of sports,” Nicole Clay says.
All districts try to help low-income families – determined by whether a student qualifies under federal income standards for free or reduced school lunches – in covering pay-to-play fees. Moreover, many athletic booster programs provide financial assistance to needy families.
Lessons in teamwork endure long after the season is over
Pay-to-play fees appear to be about only money. What’s at stake, however, is something every parent knows can’t be monetized.
Scott Kaufman is a veteran athletic director in Southwest Ohio – first for Princeton Schools and now for Wyoming Schools. He says one can’t put a dollar amount on what teens gain in life lessons from high-school sports.
“You would be hard pressed to find any leader in this world who did not have some experience in some extra-curricular activities, including sports,” says Kaufman, former vice president of Southwest Ohio Athletic Board of the OHSAA.
“You can’t put a price tag on the benefits of school sports,” he say. “Like learning teamwork, sportsmanship, academics, leadership, overcoming adversity, hard work, physical fitness and community involvement.’’
Some critics of pay-to-play rate fees question whether high schools should offer sports, that private clubs should provide the option.
Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Association for high school athletic programs, disagrees, saying students are better served through school sports than sports clubs and AAU leagues.
“Club sports lack an educational component,” Gardner wrote in an editorial released in May. “These programs exist solely for the purpose of improving one’s athletic skills and – through that process – hopefully landing a college scholarship.
“The team concept rarely exists and there is no overall philosophy to help prepare students for life after school.”
Lakota East graduating senior Tony O’Connor’s family knows the burden of high costs – $1,100 for his two sports this school year. He is concerned his younger track teammates will be priced off the field to help their financially burdened parents.
“If it gets any more expensive for parents,” he says shaking his head, “they’re going to have sell their arms and legs to pay for their kids’ sports.”