The Money Machine

 Matching Cam Newton Under Armour cleats. Olympic athletes as personal trainers. Enrolling in out-of-state camps at age five. The amount of money funneled into youth sports is staggering — fueling a machine that impacts athletes and families across the country. 

Part One

Early mornings.

Late nights.

Long days.

For most Marksmen, more than 50 hours spent at school each week as a part of the typical Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. grind.

After that, hours of homework each night. For many, there are really two chances outside of the weekend to escape the world of academics: sleep and sports.

Ten hours each week – and sometimes more – of practices, games, strength and conditioning sessions. Ten hours to put aside all of the worries and troubles a typical high school life brings.

But for so many teenagers, life just isn’t that simple.

• • •

In the first scrimmage of the 2017 season, the varsity baseball team played Thomas Jefferson High School. The school, part of the Dallas Independent School District, presented the perfect opportunity for the first competition of the year because of one factor: proximity.

“I like to play teams that are from around the school,” varsity baseball head coach Johnny Hunter said. “And frankly, it cuts down on a lot of travel. It gives us more time for classwork, community service and the notion that we’re staying engaged in our local community as well.”

But the Saturday afternoon game was cut short. Not because of bad weather or a run rule, but because many of Thomas Jefferson’s players had to leave in time to make it to work that evening.

And because most of them didn’t have cars and some not even parents to drive them, the coaches had to jump in to help. Thomas Jefferson varsity baseball head coach Frederico Trevino said that while students at 10600 Preston Rd. may not see that often, it is a relatively common occurrence in his experience.

“That’s something that we do because they can’t,” Trevino said. “They drive, but if they don’t borrow their parent’s car, they can’t drive. So, it’s just like, ‘Bro, I’ll take you.’”

There are also other obstacles players and coaches have to overcome as a result of students missing because of their jobs.

“We don’t get to put our best team out there on the field,” Trevino said. “As a coach, yes, that’s one of the things that hurts, that you can’t put your best team out there, and you don’t get to represent your school in the way you should be.”

Hunter encountered the same problem during his time coaching at Arlington Martin High School and also at Keller High School, a 2,600-student institution that is part of its namesake district.

“There were plenty of guys that I coached that would have work, especially on weekends,” Hunter said. “So especially when the conflicts were there, I was supportive of guys going where they needed to go.”

He also believes the school, and especially the community service program, help Marksmen better understand life beyond campus.

“I don’t think the message is lost on our students here,” Hunter said. “Maybe they’ve never had to do that personally, but I think that most of the guys are aware that other teams are not built the same way we are.”

Junior outfielder Cole Arnett thinks, while the financial situation into which kids are born creates inherent unfair balance in athletics, the difference is simply emblematic of a larger trend in the world, an unfairness so many have to overcome in their daily lives.

“Of course you can’t be mad,” Arnett said. “First, it’s a bummer because we didn’t get to play the full game. And second, it’s sad that there are people in that situation where they have to work during their school year from such a young age.”

Growing up in Dallas in a single-parent home, Trevino worked through high school to help his father support the rest of the family. While he was fortunate enough to be able to play baseball during those years, so many of the students he sees at Thomas Jefferson do not.

“One of the things that I think isn’t talked about enough is how many kids don’t get to participate in sports because they have a job,” Trevino said. “We have more athletes, more baseball players around campus who couldn’t play because of work issues or because of work-related situations.”

For Trevino, the hardest part of it all is knowing how much those students will miss.

“The big thing when we talk about life is that we deprive these kids,” Trevino said. “They don’t get to see what it’s like to play a sport. They don’t get to enjoy their childhood because they’re having to work.”

Part Two

The game-winning touchdown catch. The buzzer-beating three point shot. The 12-foot putt to clinch the SPC title.

That’s what high school sports are about.

But behind those victories, something often plays just as big a role as the skills of an athlete.

The difference between catching the ball and dropping it. The difference between making the shot and clanking it off the rim. The difference between sinking the putt and hitting it past the hole.

Money.   

•••

For as long as he can remember, junior Matthew Pollock has had tennis coaching outside of school.

“Until I was about nine, I would take lessons,” Pollock said. “I would have one about every week or so in my backyard, but when I was nine I started going to Brook Hollow [Country Club] and played group practices every weekday.”

Pollock, who now starts on the varsity tennis team, credits much of his early success with tennis and his ability today to the advantage that paying for lessons and group practices has given him.

“When I came to Brook Hollow, I was already way above everyone else my age,” Pollock said, “and I owe that to my lessons. Having practices every day has also gotten me a lot better.”

Not only have they helped him, but Pollock also believes that lessons and practices are pivotal to any player who wants to play tennis at a high level.

“I would say pretty much almost every top player will have lessons or practices,” Pollock said. “A lot of people drop out of school to play, and they'll play pretty much all day. The ability to have practices is definitely a huge advantage over people who wouldn't be as fortunate. Once you get older, the prices keep rising, and I could see people stopping playing tennis because of that.”

Basketball and golf head coach Greg Guiler agrees that athletes with access to private lessons have an advantage.

“There's definitely some built-in privilege for families that have tons and tons of resources,” Guiler said. “I don't think you can argue against that. I think someone who is able to hire the instructor they think is best for their kid, and make it a private lesson [has an advantage].”

In other sports, however, outside practices and lessons are not as critical.

“People use private training for cross country, but it’s by no means common.” senior cross country captain Mateo Diaz said. “The great thing about cross country is running with a private trainer isn’t necessary because you can just wake up at 6 a.m. and go for a run by yourself. Your success is dependent on yourself, not whether you afford a trainer.”

Diaz says that the lack of expenses in cross country also extends to equipment. Diaz says the maximum equipment cost for a season of cross country is around $100. In comparison, Pollock estimates the base annual tennis equipment cost to be over $500.

“Thankfully, cross country is a pretty equipment free sport,” Diaz said.  “Cost definitely isn’t as much of a factor compared to other sports. I mean, shoes are really the only important thing, so every runner is on a level playing field. I think this is a pretty big plus because, [again], at the end of the day, the only excuse you have for not performing well is yourself.”

Diaz believes that this lack of expense in cross country has benefitted him.

“I think the ease of accessing cross country means I spend more time training rather than worrying about costs or other factors related to costs,” Diaz said.

Assistant Athletic Director Joshua Friesen also sees the importance of equipment in high school sports.

“I do think that a lot of our students and families are able to afford some of the best equipment for some of their personal items in sports like baseball or lacrosse,” Friesen said. “When it’s not a school-issued piece of equipment, I think our boys definitely have some of the top-notch equipment.”

Despite the importance and high cost of equipment, Friesen has never seen an athlete unable to play a sport because of cost. He also says that the school would step in if a student ever encountered such a problem.

“I’ve never seen a situation [where a student couldn’t play due to cost],” Friesen said. “In the event that a student is hindered by his own specific financial situation, the school would definitely step in and make it available for that family. The Athletic Department will step up to make sure that any boy who wants to play a sport has that opportunity.”

In the end, despite the importance of money in high school sports, Guiler believes that it is just one factor of many in determining the success of an athlete and a team.

“I think our guys work hard,” Guiler said, “and those with or without certain privileges still achieve at a really high level because of their own work ethic and dedication. We all have limitations in different ways that keep us from doing what we want to do, but we also all have strengths that allow us to thrive in ways that other people can't thrive.”