Will pay-to-play ruin school sports?

As sports teams begin practice this year at schools across the country, many parents and student athletes are realizing that it may take more than just talent to make the cut.

Increasingly, schools are charging participations fees to be on a team – a trend that educators and sports advocates say is a danger to the concept of public education and the overall effort to get more kids involved in athletic activities.

"Pay-to-play" programs, as they are called, generally charge students about $50 to $250 per season.

Sometimes the fees are greater. In Worcester, Mass., for example, Oakmont Regional High School charges student athletes more than $1,000 to play football.

Although some schools give exceptions for athletes who cannot afford the fee, parents and administrators have raised concern about creating a two-tier system at a public school, in which some kids have to pay, and others don't. Moreover, it would be awkward, at the very least, for a student to have to claim financial hardship to a coach or athletic department.

"It's a big issue here," says Gayle Mulligan, a mother of two who was involved in protesting a pay-to-play proposal in Hebron, Conn. "Hebron is traditionally a farming town. [Participation fees] would be unfair for families who could not afford them. It could make a big difference for some kids when they decide if they want to go out for a team."

Moreover, observers say, the implementation of pay-to-play seems to lead to lower participation – at a time when participation is rising in schools that don't charge to play sports. The implication, should the trend continue, is that playing a sport at a public high school is a privilege to be paid for, not something earned through effort.

"Our position is that we oppose it philosophically," says Tony Mosa, the director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. "Our athletic directors oppose it, and our coaches oppose it.

"We have found that there is some drop-off in participation when pay-to-play is implemented. We have also found that, in some instances, parents feel that because they are paying they have the right to control when their child plays in a game. There are some aggressive parents out there, and this is causing problems."

Nationally, pay-to-play programs are clearly on the rise, although there are no hard statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The evidence is anecdotal.

A recent poll in Wisconsin found that 269 out of 493 schools were charging participation fees. Many of the schools with pay-to-play are in urban areas, says Todd Clark, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.

This year Carroll County, Md., became the first school system near Baltimore to implement sports fees. In Strongsville, Ohio, students will have to pony up $120 per sport – with a cap of $240 for a multisport athlete. At Overlook Middle School near Worcester, Mass., soccer now costs $342 and field hockey $389.

Meanwhile, some schools that already charged fees are upping the ante this year. In Minnesota, five high schools in the Anoka-Hennepin area raised fees by $80 per sport, bringing the charge for football to $290 and basketball to $332.

"My sense is that participation fees are increasing throughout the country," says John Gillis, assistant director of the NFHS, who began following the issue when it surfaced some 10 years ago.

According to Gillis, there are more than just economic reasons to explain the rise of pay-to-pay programs. He points to cultural changes that have taken place over the past 20 to 30 years, in which the local high school and its sports team are no longer the focus of small communities, as they once were.

As a result, athletic programs receive a smaller portion of school budgets than they once did – now about 2 to 3 percent. At the same time, they are becoming more expensive to run than ever before.

Also, Gillis says, with more activities available to the public, fewer fans are going to sporting events at the local high school. That has cut income from ticket sales.

Under the gun, athletic directors have had to resort to creative methods to find funds. One answer: pay-to-play.

I can understand the controversy," NFHS's Gillis says. "Here you have a public school that the parents are paying taxes to support. Why should the parents have to pay extra for something that should be included with the school?"

In most instances, schools justify participation fees as necessary for survival.

Connecticut is typical of a state in which participations fees are becoming more common. With the economy in recession, the state has cut funding for schools. At the same time, the legislature has passed laws to increase standardized testing and to boost resources for special education – two expensive undertakings. Add it all up, and something has to give.

Often the local board of education will tell a school there is not enough money to fund a particular sports program. The school is then left with a choice: Cut the sport or look for other sources of money.

"We're against the concept of pay-for-play. We think the problems far outweigh the benefits," says Ed Goldstone, principal of Amity Regional High School in Connecticut. "We are an affluent district, but that does not mean that every family is affluent. If you have a sport like cross-country, where there are 40 kids participating and [even if] only five of them are affected, well, that's inexcusable."

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