School sports: the income divide


Graphic by Dennis Lubensky

By Elianna Cohen

Graphic by Dennis Lubensky

“When I was little, I knew my parents couldn’t afford to enroll me in any sports programs,” said senior Jennifer Reyes.

Throughout tryouts during her sophomore year, she realized that she could not keep up with her other potential teammates. But Reyes wasn’t alone. Lots of other students who didn’t have the opportunity of joining a Marin Youth sports program, such as club or CYO, before trying out for a Tam sports team maybe be more likely to get cut, according to a recent Tam News survey.

An experienced soccer player who, like many in this article, wished to remain anonymous due to the personal nature of finances, explained, “My mom enrolled me in Pee Wee soccer when I was two, and I have been playing with the Mill Valley Soccer Club ever since.” A season of Pee Wee Soccer costs parents $500, and the Mill Valley Soccer Club costs $2,000, a hefty price for sports experience that many kids from low-income families cannot afford. Though Tamalpais High School’s Boosters Club pays for any necessary equipment, students on Tam sports teams cannot afford, a recent Tam News survey of 100 athletes who tried out for the soccer, volleyball, basketball and baseball teams indicated that 42 percent of Tam students who tried out and come from households with annual incomes under $80,000 were cut. Only 5 percent of students with annual household incomes greater than $80,000 were cut from Tam teams.

Some authorities in the Tam community, like Vice Principal Chad Stuart, worry that students from low-income families get cut from competitive high school sports teams because they cannot afford the cost of sports training before they arrive at high school.

“It is a collective responsibility of the community to support students no matter what their economic background is,” said Stuart. “It’s a community issue because as kids with money get individualized training, by the time they get to high school they are ready to go.”

The Tam News survey showed that 91 percent of players on Tam sports teams enroll in a sports program with a club or organization prior to joining a sports team at Tam. Of those surveyed, 37 percent of student athletes received private coaching.

While 96 percent of students from higher income families received training in a Marin youth sports programs, only 55 percent of students from lower income families received it. When asked what they did when challenged with the cost of playing in a sports club, some students in the survey responded that they simply “didn’t play.”

To play Upperhouse soccer for the Mill Valley Soccer Club costs between $1,200 and $2,200 a year. Mt. Carmel basketball of the Catholic Youth Organization charges $260 a season for elementary and middle school-age players. Marin Juniors, a club volleyball team, costs $1,000. Pre-season, the average cost for participation in the AAU Basketball Club ranges from $500 to $2,000 depending on which tournaments the team travels to, not including the $75 tryout fee nor the $75 uniforms.

Bay Area Community Resources therapist Lizzie Stevenson, who formerly worked at Tam, said, “There’s a split between the haves and the have-nots from early on. While the kids who can afford these services have early access to athletic advantages, the kids who do not are placed at a disadvantage when they show up to high school.”

Some sports programs, such as the Mill Valley Soccer Club (MVSC), offer scholarships. “MVSC is dedicated to providing opportunities to every player to develop their full potential,” said MVSC president Jerry Labay.

This includes providing scholarships and equipment for families who can’t afford them. Although this is the goal, organizations can only provide scholarships do so to the extent that funds are available.

Some public sports programs face even more financial limitations than private ones. The Marin Juniors Volleyball Club, a volleyball club run by the city of San Rafael, California, is one such program.

“The city is not capable of underwriting an entire membership for the students,” said Gary Burns from the Community Services Department in San Rafael. “We try and spread the financial aid out; we don’t just give it to one person.”

There are social, academic, cognitive and psychological benefits to playing a team sport. A person learns to communicate with their teammates, learns to cope with the disappointment of losing, and learns to respect other opponents when shaking hands with them after the game. A player gains self-motivation, and a sense of achievement that one feels when they see their skills improve after dedication. A select few will also benefit from participating on a sports team in regards to college admissions, as university sports team recruit high school students who excel in their sport.

So how can the community ensure that players of all economic backgrounds get the benefits of playing on a team?

One solution is for youth sports programs in Marin to offer more financial aid to players that cannot afford it.

“Sports leagues should strive to make their programs affordable for all players interested in participating,” said Labay. “However, scholarship funding is limited, and there may be instances when a family receives less assistance than requested.”

To raise more funds to provide scholarships, the Mill Valley Soccer Club annually holds the fundraiser Soccerfest, an event filled with soccer, food, and drink that requests a donation for admission.

Another possible solution is to make Tam sports teams inclusive to players of all skill levels, by employing a no-cut policy. In a no-cut policy, all candidates who try out for a sports team are admitted, so long as they turn in their Athletic Participation Form, receive a minimum 2.0 grade point average and have health insurance. In this scenario, inexperienced players gradually develop the skills that contribute to the team’s success. Football and lacrosse coach Jon Black employs a no-cut policy.

“At the lower levels, you never know which undeveloped underclassmen will become developed as seniors,” he said.

Tennis coach Bill Washaeur, who also keeps players of all skill levels on the team, has also experienced the benefits of a no-cut policy.

“Some people will improve who were marginal originally. A girl started as a beginner and became a senior captain,” said Washaeur.

Senior Jackson Lungdren, part of Tam’s swim team, which also has a no-cut policy, pointed out another benefit of the policy. He believes inclusivity is important, and said, “Excluding players does nothing to help the team, and often hurts and embarrasses students.” Tam’s swim team recently brought home its fourth consecutive MCAL title.

Senior varsity basketball player Britt Lindberg agrees. “A player may just give up the sport all together if they have somebody tell them they aren’t good enough to play at a certain level,” she said.

But some people fear that including players of all skill levels will sabotage the success of Tam’s team sports. “The point of a competitive team is to win, and for that you need people with experience who are good,” said senior Carin Gavin.

Tam coaches face the pressure of winning, too. “As a coach, you’re judged by your results,” said Washaeur. However, a coach can keep up a team’s winning record by only allowing players who excel in their sport to play in games. Of course, that solution has a consequence too, as people feel the team’s practices become less productive.

“If there is a huge discrepancy between the inexperienced players and the experienced players, it can tend to drop the overall level of practice play,” said varsity volleyball coach Casey Mondragon.

Bill Washaeur dealt with the situation of a large number of inexperienced tennis players joining the team with extra practices for a group of the beginning players.

“Call me crazy,” he said. “It keeps players involved with the game, and gives them a place to learn without spending lots of money.”

By developing players rather than cutting them, he noted that one B squad player from 2010 became a starter in 2011, and a couple more could move up in 2012.

However, including players of all skill levels strains limited athletics resources, such as practice space, equipment and transportation. As the Tam student population is projected to increase to over 1,400 students by 2017, lack of resources may pose a problem in the future.

In addition to the solutions already proposed, Tam therapist Emily Peairs suggests another idea that might allow low-income students to reap the benefits of participating in team sports. She believes that non-competitive exercise activities by school clubs should also be offered.

“Things like hiking, badminton, inner tube water polo, ultimate frisbee, zumba, spin classes – physical activities that might attract a much broader population, including students less interested in competition, would be good,” she said.

Excluding players does nothing to help the team, and often hurts and embarrasses students.

Another concrete solution may soon be approved. The Boosters programs at all Tamalpais Union High School District high schools are considering funding a developmental coach for all students cut from school sports teams. These coaches would be paid a half stipend because they wouldn’t be required to go to games. This would create a free intramural sports program for high school students who get cut from Tam’s teams.

“In theory, this sounds great,” said Stuart. “It solves the problem of what happens to those kids [that get cut] because we want our kids to feel like they have something they can do when they come to school.”

Although the fields and gym facilities are not spacious enough to offer practice space to intramural sports teams for high schoolers, Dominican University recently proposed to offer field space to the district. This would make the plan for a free intramural sports program for high school students that get cut from the JV and Varsity teams feasible. Although providing bus transportation or finding carpools for students needing rides to Dominican University is an expense that Boosters will need to pick up, Boosters supports a program to provide high school students of all economic backgrounds an opportunity to join a sports team. The athletic council anticipates the plan with Dominican University will go into effect in the Spring of 2013. Hopefully, with the implementation of these and other changes, even students from lower-income households will be able to participate in and benefit from high school sports.