By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
Scot Brewer has used football to carve out a pretty nice life for himself.
After a standout career on the gridiron at Troy (Ohio) High School, he went on to college, was an assistant football coach at several Columbus area high schools and returned to his hometown school, where he ultimately took over as head coach in 2012.
“I was never really pushed to play football as a kid,” said Brewer, who excelled at both football and baseball at Troy before graduating in 1993. “I liked playing baseball. I liked skateboarding. I liked pole vaulting.”
Twenty years ago Brewer’s story wasn’t all that unusual. The best athletes in high school were expected to play multiple sports, just as athletes before them had done.
Today, however, fewer student-athletes are playing multiple sports. Specialization has accelerated as students-athletes are steered toward one primary sport to avoid injury and a better opportunity at colleges and professional sports.
Maci Morris, a junior at Bell County High School in Kentucky, experimented with a number of sports as a youth — including tennis and softball — but ultimately made the decision to focus on basketball before she entered junior high school.
Her decision to specialize in one sport has paid off, as she currently is ranked by most recruiting services as one of the top guards in the nation and already has given a verbal commitment to play basketball at the University of Kentucky after she graduates in 2015.
“I’m playing or practicing year round and that’s made me better at the fundamentals,” she said. “My basketball IQ has improved a lot because that’s my only game. I’m not spending a couple of months away from basketball working on different skills, and that has helped me to keep improving my game. Also, being active with AAU ball and camps helps you to get noticed. It helped me to get the scholarship I have.”
Virginia Tech head football coach Frank Beamer said the rise in sports specialization and the decline in the number of athletes playing multiple sports has everything to do with athletes seeking out college scholarships.
Furthermore, high school consolidation in rural areas play another role. In some cases, there’s decreased opportunities due to fewer schools or even more competition for fewer spots on the roster.
“I would say in a recruiting class of 25, there might be three or four maybe,” Beamer said of today’s three-sport athletes. “You don’t see much of it anymore.”
College football in particular, Beamer said, has put a pinch on high school athletes looking to play a winter or spring sports. College football’s early enrollment period allows high school seniors who have completed their high school course work to enroll in college in January, take classes, and participate in spring football practice.
“If a guy is coming in out of high school on a scholarship, I would prefer he comes in January, because in reality you have five years to get four years of eligibility in. So if you come in the spring and your five-year clock starts, then you give yourself a chance to play in the fall,” Beamer said.
To be sure, high schools sports participation is alive and well. The number of athletes has more than doubled in the past 40 years, particularly with an explosion in the number of girls involved in high school athletics, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which tracks national statistics.
Largely thanks to Title 9, there are more opportunities for girls to participate in high school sports programs. It also provides that colleges and universities offer the same number of scholarship opportunities to men and women.
At the Division I collegiate level, this has meant increased scholarship opportunities for women, especially for schools that offer the NCAA-maximum number of 85 full scholarships for football players. In an effort to match those scholarships for men, some schools have cut men’s scholarships in other sports, while some have increased the number of scholarships offered in women’s sports.
According to the NFSHSA, more than 80 percent of athletes participated in more than one sport in 1971. That number dropped to around 65 percent by 1991. Within the past 20 years, however, the number of athletes participating in multiple sports has dropped off even more precipitously — by 2011, fewer than 40 percent of athletes surveyed said they participated in multiple sports at the high school level.
The drop-off rate is erratic, depending on school size. Larger high schools feel the pinch more than schools with smaller enrollments. At schools with enrollments of fewer than 800 students, 57 percent of athletes chose to participate in multiple sports, according to a report released by the National Federation of High School Athletic Directors in 2008. At schools with enrollments between 801-1,200, 47 percent of students participated in multiple sports. At schools with enrollments of greater than 1,200, only 28 percent of athletes participated in multiple sports.
The drop in athletes participating in multiple sports has been a frustrating one for coaches, many of whom lament the fact their numbers are decreasing as athletes are giving up one or two sports in order to focus on one athletic endeavor.
Even at a school such as Troy — with an enrollment of more than 1,000 and a football tradition as rich as many throughout Ohio — coaches such as Brewer are seeing a decline in numbers. He said he’s seen multiple football players give up the sport in order to focus on a different sport.
It’s not something Brewer encourages — even when the athlete is giving up other sports to focus solely on football.
“That’s not something we want to see happen,” he said. “I want well-rounded athletes on my football team. I want them out there playing different sports and representing their school. I want my kids playing basketball or wrestling in the winter and I want my kids playing baseball or running track in the spring.”
Brewer thinks playing multiple sports helps make kids better athletes and that adults should encourage student athletes to have fun.
“We want these kids to be kids, Brewer said. “I played baseball in high school because I loved it and had fun doing it. If someone had told me in high school I had to quit playing baseball to focus only on football, I would have fought them on it.”
HEALTH AND WELLNESS
With so many athletes choosing to focus on only one sport — an phenomenon that is not only prevalent at the high school levels, but also is taking hold at the youth levels, many experts are starting to wonder if sports specialization is healthy for athletes, physically or mentally.
Some have argued that with an increased number of sports played, there comes an elevated risk of injury as well. Many coaches have expressed concern about losing a star basketball player for the season if he were to blow out a knee playing football, for example.
It’s not a theory Brewer subscribes to, however.
“Could I lose a football player if he injured a knee playing basketball? Sure — but I can also lose a kid if he steps off the curb the wrong way and twists his ankle,” he said. “You can’t play the ‘What If?’ game all the time. If you do, as a coach, you’ll make yourself nuts.
While a star player in one sport getting injured playing another sport is rare, it does tend to grab headlines. The medical facts, however, indicate that sports specialization actually increases a young athletes chances of getting hurt while playing a sport.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries among middle and high school students. A 2013 report by the sports medicine department at Loyola University of Chicago, meanwhile, stated that “kids are twice as likely to get hurt if they play just one sport as those who play multiple sports.”
Many athletes — especially younger ones — who focus on one sport are putting too much stress on specific muscle groups and bones. Elbow and shoulder injuries among youth baseball and softball players have increased by 500 percent since 2000, according to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.
Gerry Gallo, a professor in the University of Dayton’s School of Education and Health Sciences, says the concern over star athletes in one sport giving up another for fear of injury goes against simple logic.
“It’s a shame, really, how many coaches don’t want their athletes to compete in other sports because they are afraid they will get injured playing another sport,” Gallo said. “What sense does that make? Do they really think a coach in another sport is going to want the athlete to get injured? Don’t they realize that the coach in the other sport is going to do everything they can to protect the athlete.”
There’s also a mental health aspect to consider, said Gallo, who is a certified USA Hockey Coach, Level III, and has coached numerous youth soccer teams.
“You have some kids who are playing one sport all year long,” Gallo said. “If a kid truly loves a sport and that’s what they truly want to do, that’s fine. They should pursue that one sport. But a lot of times, the kids aren’t being exposed to any other sports, so they don’t really know if there’s anything else out there they would rather be doing. So many times, we are seeing kids being programmed to play just one sport from a very young age. That’s why I think it’s important to expose kids to as many sports as possible — so they can figure out what it is they enjoy doing.
Russ Adams, who played four seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, said he relished playing multiple sports at Scotland High School in Laurinburg, N.C., from which he graduated in 1999.
“I’m really glad that I played all of them,” he said. “I was fortunate enough where one ended up working out for me, but I enjoyed football in the fall and basketball in the winter. I enjoyed competing and each sport helped me in different ways. It lets you stay competitive and not get burned out with it. You have something new and fresh to do each season.”
But what about kids who want to play multiple sports, but don’t have the opportunity?
In some rural areas across the country, infrastructure and roads improved, paving the way for consolidation. With the combining of those smaller schools, many student athletes couldn’t compete for roster spots. In the case of eastern Kentucky’s Mingo Central where four schools were merged into one, 36 roster spots for basketball were eliminated.
Many of those kids that were talented enough to make the team at the smaller school may not be a capable enough athlete to make the squad at the larger school.
Joe May was a multi-sport star for the Tigers of Matewan, W.V., but after consolidation of his school, he gave up basketball and concentrated on football. He was a Class AA All-state selection as a utility player his senior season and had opportunities to play in college.
“I knew coming in that the competition at (the consolidated school) would be higher and I needed to be at my very best,” May said. “So I simply focused on football.”
Michael Jordan is regarded by many as the greatest basketball player ever to play the game. Often forgotten amidst the NBA titles and “Dream Team” gold medals, however, is the fact that baseball — a sport he played growing up — remained one of his true loves well into adulthood. So enamored was Jordan with baseball that — during the height of his basketball powers, he gave up the sport temporarily to pursue baseball as a minor leaguer.
Currently, LeBron James is considered by many to be the best basketball player in the world and he has a pair of championship rings and multiple MVP honors to prove it. Even while he was appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a sophomore basketball phenom at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, he also was an All-Ohio wide receiver for the high school’s football team.
Many athletes who became professional superstars in one sport — or even multiple sports — who played multiple sports at the high school level. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball — and did so at world-class levels. John Elway was drafted by both the Denver Broncos and New York Yankees.
More recently, Joe Mauer — All-Star catcher for the Minnesota Twins — played quarterback for his high school football team, point guard for his high school basketball team and was catcher for his high school baseball team. In 2000, he was named USA Today High School Player of the Year in football; in 2001, Mauer was named USA Today High School Player of the Year in baseball.
Financially speaking, there is merit for the idea of high school athletes focusing on an individual sport as opposed to playing multiple sports. While the chances of any high school athlete — multi-sport and single-sport athletes alike — earning a college scholarship are remote, the chances of earning a college scholarship do increase for athletes who choose to specialize.
And at some high schools — particularly those forced to consolidate for geographic or economic reasons — sports specialization is the only way many athletes can compete.
However, most experts — whether it be coaches, administrators, current professional athletes or even medical doctors — agree the trend toward sports specialization in the past decade or two hasn’t necessarily been a good thing for the athletes involved.
“Sometimes I do think I should have focused on one sport, but then I think about how many athletes I know that get burned out playing just one sport and also I would have missed out on so many amazing memories if I didn’t play all three sports in high school,” said Kaley Moss, a former three-sport athlete at Urbana (Ohio) High School. “Winning CBC titles in volleyball, basketball, and track my senior year would have never been possible if I only stuck to one sport. Like I said, I have a love for each sport I played and I wouldn’t have traded the memories or my teammates for anything.”