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An unfair race
September 28, 2021
Long touted as the great equalizer, sports have been a quintessential aspect of many Americans’ childhoods. Despite their reputation, youth and high school athletics come at a steep price. Kids from low-income families are six times more likely to quit sports due to costs, according to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play. From Little League to private swimming lessons, almost all organized sports are pay-to-play, and it’s not uncommon for some parents to shell out thousands of dollars to get their children off the bench — but what about families who can’t afford that price?
For most sports, club or outside training can significantly increase the chance of success in high school. Many benefits come with training alongside others in an organized program, according to Michele Conlon, head tennis professional at the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex. At HTRC, students receive coaching on strokes, strategy, mental and emotional toughness, and accountability. They also gain valuable experience that increases their chance of success at tournaments.
“Students are exposed to a lot of different game styles and personalities that they will need to deal with in a tournament or in a high school match,” Conlon said.
Varsity tennis player Jayden Shin ’23 has trained at the HTRC since he was in the fifth grade.
“I definitely think that taking private lessons and club tennis has made an impact on me as an athlete,” Shin said.
However, this experience comes at a price. Private lessons at the HTRC range from $44 to $60 per hour, depending on instructor and membership status, which can accumulate to over $2,000 per year if taken weekly. These expenses, added to the cost of rackets, other equipment and tournament fees, can take a hefty toll on any bank account.
“A racket costs roughly $200, and high-performance players typically have two,” Conlon said. “Tournaments can get expensive with a $30 to $70 entry fee, hotel, gas [and] food.”
The HTRC has implemented several policies aimed at increasing tennis’ accessibility, including keeping their rates lower than most in the industry, allowing non-members to participate in training and putting together a diversity, equity and inclusion committee.
While some sports often require more equipment and training, others are generally less expensive. According to World Atlas, soccer is the most popular sport globally, which is commonly attributed to its accessibility — just a ball and two goals are enough to play. Ruichar Medina ’22 played on the varsity soccer team last season despite not having any club experience beforehand. However, playing alongside peers who have trained for years came with its difficulties.
“The practices were a little hard. I just had to stand up and keep moving forward to reach the [varsity] team,” Medina said in an interview translated from Spanish. “I felt a little turned off because [other players] had previous experience playing — it was my first year on the team.”
Medina now plays for the Iowa Soccer Club using the money he earns and has gained confidence since joining.
Track and cross country are also sports that require relatively few expenses for athletes. However, equipment such as running shoes and spikes are essential to participation.
“For our sport, thankfully, there is not a lot of equipment needed other than spikes,” said Travis Craig, West High boys track and field head coach. “We do have to provide spikes to five to 10 athletes each year.”
Having a sufficient supply of running shoes is crucial for varsity track and cross country athlete Sara Alaya ‘22.
“Especially in cross country, we go through a lot of running shoes,” Alaya said. “If a person’s family can’t afford to buy them running shoes every six months … or every certain amount of miles, then that’ll affect their running majorly, and they [will] get more injuries.”
In addition to running shoes, transportation from practices and meets is a limiting factor for athletes’ participation. When buses are not provided for meets closer to school, getting athletes to and from these events can pose a challenge.
“Sometimes the school does not provide transportation, and you’re stuck not knowing how you’re going to get to a cross country meet or track meet,” Alaya said. “[Some athletes] rely on their other teammates, but even then, sometimes we don’t even have enough drivers on the team to transport 40-plus people to a track meet across the city.”
For athletes, fueling their bodies with adequate nutrition is also crucial. However, those that can’t afford a stable supply of healthy food must rely on team resources.
“We depend a lot on our parents of more affluent families to provide these snacks and healthy food for meets,” Craig said. “This is critical to optimal performance in our sport.”
To participate in athletics at West, athletes must submit a yearly physical exam by a licensed physician. Although this may be effortless for some, it can be yet another hurdle to overcome for others.
“Getting timely and yearly physicals is a difficult process for many of our athletes,” Craig said. “Our current policy says that anyone without these things needs to wait and come back once they have these done. Some students never come back since this is such a hardship or because they got turned away.”
For some athletes, excelling in a sport can be their golden ticket to the college admissions game. This ticket, however, is not drawn at random. According to ESPN’s The Undefeated, fewer than one in seven Division I athletes come from families where neither parent attended college. This first-generation status is an important indicator of socioeconomic opportunity, with students typically being from low-income households. Because of their financial status, lower-income families have a harder time providing their children with increasingly important resources, including club membership and individual training, to pursue athletics at an elite level.
For tennis, Shin says participating in tournaments outside of school is crucial to get recruited.
“Tournament matches contribute to a Universal Tennis Rating, which is a key factor in recruitment,” Shin said. “High school tennis is sometimes [neglected] or overlooked during the recruitment process.”
This means that players without the resources to enter expensive outside tournaments are disadvantaged in getting recruited and receiving scholarships. In the end, those who have the money and support to excel have a better chance of coming out on top and reaping the benefits of being paid to play in college.