PAUL ISN’T THE ONLY GRADE-SCHOOL star feeling the love. Throughout the Philadelphia area, coaches at independent and parochial schools are wooing sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — and occasionally kids younger than that — in an attempt to build winning teams. It’s a trickle-down of the same model that helps colleges generate publicity and awareness: A winning sports program means more and better coverage in the media, which translates into more admission requests and greater financial support from proud alumni. And at a time when the wobbly economy has families reassessing the merits of spending $30,000 a year for high school, schools are eager to embrace anything that will help with marketing and the bottom line.
“When we have an open house, or kids visit the school, their awareness of some of our [athletic] success allows them to know us,” says Tony Resch, athletic director at La Salle College High School, which plays in the Catholic League and has won 64 championships in 14 sports over the past dozen years. “The coverage we get is free advertising, and if you have a family remotely interested in sports, they see our name in the sports page, and it pays dividends.”
For the young athletes being pursued — who range from inner-city kids to well-heeled suburbanites like Paul — the attention has plenty of potential benefits, including the chance to get a top-shelf education, tuition assistance, and an opportunity to chase a college scholarship. For local schools, though, the pursuit of athletic prosperity has triggered something of an arms race — one that sometimes pushes academics to the back burner and doesn’t always seem consistent with institutions’ educational missions.
In order to fill their rosters with enough talent to win championships, for example, certain schools drop admissions standards or provide tuition assistance that is based on athletic prowess (rather than — as they publicly insist — entirely on need). Some schools also violate PIAA laws by recruiting outside their areas, or poaching players from other schools and keeping them back a year, even if they’re capable of handling the work.
The result: Some institutions now have two-tiered student bodies, divided between regular kids and recruited athletes who are looked at by some as mercenaries.
Jack, for example, has learned there’s a definite distinction at Inter-Ac schools between the lifers — those who attend from kindergarten through 12th grade — and athletes who come in for ninth grade. “The kids who start in kindergarten feel a sense of entitlement for the sports teams, but they get angry when the hotshot kids come in as ringers,” he says. “The new kids don’t feel welcome.”
In a society where youth sports are already careening out of control, the current competition among Philly high schools represents the perhaps inevitable next step. High-school athletic recruiting has been going on for decades, but not to this extent. Pretty soon, coaches will be marking territory at baptisms for infants with tall parents.