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The NCAA’s Responsibility to Youth Sports

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a three-part series last week on issues in youth sports arising from specialization and elite sports clubs. Their conclusions were that these clubs which pushed athletes to participate in one sport year-round were causing more injuries, harming high school athletics, pricing low-income and minority athletes out of the system and maybe even producing worse athletes.

It is clear how changes by the NCAA might affect the professional ranks. If the NCAA wanted to push a different draft eligibility rule in football or basketball, changing its own eligibility rules would be a good start. Less clear is how the NCAA’s rules affect youth sports. And a question that often goes unanswered is whether they should.

As long as colleges offer athletic scholarships, parents and young athletes will work toward a scholarship as a goal. This despite the long odds of receiving a scholarship. That cracks the door to justify NCAA regulation of youth sports in a few ways. The most visible are the NCAA’s initial eligibility rules, where the NCAA applies some pressure to secondary education. Basketball event certification is another, as are some of the NCAA’s general recruiting rules.

If the NCAA was just a sports league, it would not have much responsibility or obligation to the levels below it. The NBA’s draft rule may or may not be harmful to college athletics, but the NBA does not claim to care about college basketball. By contrast, the NCAA does claim an interest in high school education and youth sports. And as an educational organization, it would be tough for the NCAA to disclaim that interest.

The NCAA’s intent in this area might be good, but so far the execution could use improvement. The main tool the NCAA uses in regulating youth sports is to prohibit coaches from attending nonscholastic events. The goal is to push as much of the recruiting focus back to high schools, but that ship has already sailed. The real or perceived benefits of athletes focusing on one sport, year-round with an elite club are much higher than playing three or four different sports through their high schools. Throw in budget cuts and arguments against high school sports and it looks like the NCAA is fighting a losing battle.

There is no obvious solution, but any good idea will start from the premise that the club sports genie cannot be put back in the bottle. That means accepting that limitation when thinking up ways to combat third-party interference and to ensure athletes focus on academics. It means recognizing that going back in time is not a viable option to address the problems raised by the Chronicle series.

If NCAA reform continues on the path it appears now, all those problems are going to get worse. Providing more to athletes, having a potentially smaller top level of collegiate athletics, and allowing athletes to profit in the not-to-distant future will all increase the pressure on young athletes. More will specialize sooner, clubs will charge more money, and the injuries and lack of focus on high school athletics will be amplified. It will still be the NCAA’s responsibility to be a good partner with youth sports and meeting that challenge requires a different approach.

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