YOUTH sports once followed a natural progression with the seasons. Around the time the forsythia bloomed, kids put away the basketball and went searching for their bats and gloves. When the days grew shorter and cooler, the bats and gloves were stashed and (for the boys, at least) the football was brought out.
Sometime around Thanksgiving, they went indoors and played basketball until it got warm enough for baseball or softball again.
That was before the age of specialization. Today, a young athlete with talent is steered toward the sport that seems to offer the best (albeit tiny) chance of someday being famous, at the exclusion of all other endeavors.
The Virginia High School League seems to favor this one-sport philosophy. In 2011, the VHSL changed its policy toward organized out-of-season practices. In all sports, it was decreed, such practices would be allowed year-round except for three 10-day “dead” periods, plus the week around July 4.
That isn’t a sport. That’s a job.
The VHSL had a chance to change that last month. It didn’t. Its executive committee voted on a proposal that would ban out-of-season organized practices from Aug. 2 to May 31, plus the week around July 4.
The proposal failed, 29–3–1.
VHSL Executive Director Billy Haun cited reasons for continuing the endless season.
There is the fear that public high schools would lose their best players to “travel teams” or schools that aren’t bound by the VHSL rules. Some of this happens anyhow. It already is common practice for top prep basketball players to transfer to non-VHSL schools that offer the best chance to play top-flight regional or even national competition.
There also is the recognition that the VHSL, with its limited resources, can’t police a more strict out-of-season rule. The logic, then, seems to be to just stop trying.
One athletic director, Martinsville High’s Tommy Golding, said in a Roanoke Times interview that smaller schools now have a hard time fielding teams because a kid who in the past might have been a three-sport athlete now has to focus on one. Plus, he says, “I don’t think it’s healthy. You look at these kids that are going to year-long baseball, and all of a sudden there’s such an increase in Tommy John surgery. They’re over-using their muscles.”
It also puts a strain on coaches, many of whom would like to coach multiple sports but have to devote all their energy to just one. If your rivals are practicing almost full-time, you feel duty-bound to do the same.
Being able to concentrate on one sport probably is good for some kids. However Virginia schools are doing it, they seem to develop more than their share of big-time athletes.
Last week, a list of the top 25 state high school football players showed that top-tier football schools such as Clemson, Penn State and Notre Dame are eager for Virginia talent. They’re so eager, in fact, that only one of the top 10 and eight of the top 25 on that list opted to play for Virginia colleges.
We believe, though, that the vast majority of teenagers would be better served by a system in which it is possible to play more than one sport. Nearly endless out-of-season practices makes that impossible.
High school athletics should be something more than an incubator for future college and pro players. It should, perish the thought, be a little enjoyable, too.
We hope the VHSL will revisit this issue next year and come to a different conclusion. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes 3, there is a season for every activity under the heavens, and it shouldn’t be 12 months long.