High school sports: What it really costs to play high school football

Published: Monday, Sept. 2 2013 3:35 p.m. MDT

“When we say it’s optional, we mean it,” Montero said. “I have really asked that all of our programs be as transparent as possible with what it costs for our student-athletes to participate. … And we really make a point of what’s optional. We also tell coaches, ‘Keep your eyes open for those who can’t afford it or who may need some support.’ ”

Changes and solutions

More expensive programs don’t necessarily win more football games, but many believe it does create an uneven playing field.

Fraser believes paying coaches — and a reasonable number of assistants — a fair wage for their summer camps and clinics will go a long way to eliminate the "freelancing," which creates a number of issues.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the Granite District made sure to do this, and Fraser said it made for a more level experience.

“Our district was very well represented (in the playoffs), and we weren’t breaking the kids to do it,” Fraser said.

When budget crunches eliminated that support, teams were left to figure out how to serve their students.

“We turned it over to the free marketplace, and within a year’s time, Kearns, Cyprus, Hunter were still paying those $30 fees for camp, while the others were charging what the market would bear — $300 or $400 and giving kids summer camp, spirit packs, etc.,” said Fraser. “Coaches said, ‘If nobody is going to regulate this, and it’s not against board policy, we’re going to (make money). … It accelerated very quickly.”

Additonal issues

Yet another issue that entered the mix is open enrollment, which became law in the early 1990s and allowed parents to send their children to any school that has room to take them. This change made it necessary for schools, and in turn coaches, to differentiate themselves, oftentimes offering the latest equipment, training and costly trips to keep or attract athletes.

This change also coincided with the increased popularity of specialization and club sports. Football has become a year-round sport, meaning coaches have to offer something to their players in the offseason, even if it’s just weight lifting, in order to remain competitive.

While some believe this is just the price of modern sports, others believe the situation has gotten out of hand because of a lack of leadership and oversight, and it’s made it difficult for some schools to stay competitive.

“The reality is you spend a lot of money over the years for your kids to participate in high school athletics in affluent areas or (else) they don’t get the opportunity,” said a Jordan District father. “And schools in less affluent areas have trouble competing in that arena. It’s not a level playing field between schools and families of youth wanting to participate.”

The father estimated that playing two sports for 10 years, including four years of high school sports, cost the family a grand total of $40,000.

“Can Granger or Taylorsville or Kearns compete with that?” he asked. “Well, you see the results year after year. Once in awhile because of talent and heart, maybe. But on average, it’s not a level playing field.”

What is fair? Who will enforce the rules?

Bingham's Peck speaks for a lot of coaches when he said he’s trying his best to do what he can for high school athletes within the rules.

“If they want to change the rules, then let us know,” he said. “Someone’s got to tell me I’m doing something wrong, if I am. But I don’t feel I am. I don’t know what I could cut back on.”

For many, asking high school students to pay to play violates the mission statement of the Utah High School Activities Association, the organization that oversees prep sports.