It’s Not Just Desire and Dedication that Matter

What is the narrative you most associate with high school or college football? The NCAA would have you believe (and they have conducted an effective propaganda campaign to this effect) that football is the great equalizer: a test of your skill, grit and fortitude, the winner decided by the person with the most heart, the most effort, irrespective of your upbringing and background.

Just look at one of the NCAA’s more recent, and more controversial, commercials, which aired during March Madness. The only line of the production states, after short vignettes depicting a “typical” student-athlete’s day, that “If you have the talent and dedication to succeed in school and in sports, we’ll provide the opportunity.”

There’s no mention of upbringing, where you lived, what high school you went to or how you got there. The messaging is clear: the only thing that matters is your talent and dedication.

Although nice to believe, and effective at perpetuating the NCAA’s particular brand of amateur athletics (we’ll set aside this dubious claim for a minute), this statement ignores the stark and hidden reality behind the opportunities that many colleges afford to these “naturally dedicated” individuals: where you come from and the resources that your school allocates toward athletics.

Football is perhaps the most prominent example of this trend. Across the nation, standout private high school programs dominate the ESPN 300 list of top recruits, with many offering scholarships, huge sums of money toward athletics programs and facilities that rival or exceed most college football programs.

High schools like Bishop Gorman in Nevada, IMG Academy in Florida and Mater Dei in California throw tens of millions of dollars at their flagship football programs, providing athletes with the resources to better themselves and thrust their profiles into the top echelon of coveted recruits who are subjected to inquiries and offers from college coaches as early as middle school.

Bishop Gorman inaugurated a 41,000-square-foot facility in 2012 that was paid for entirely by donors and rivals those of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. IMG Academy recently embarked on a similar program.

Unsurprisingly, these schools dominate college recruiting charts. And yes, to give them their due, many offer scholarships to deserving athletes who would otherwise not have the chance to attend. But many more pay full tuition, an investment by their parents and the communities’ investment in a future facilitated by the wealth and prestige of these institutions.

These dynamics play out not only in the rarified air of wealthy private schools: the same phenomenon can be found in places as far-flung as rural Iowa or West Virginia, where poor schools repeatedly get dominated by wealthier suburbs, where school and athletic budgets are higher, parents pay for individual coaching for their kid and schools invest in better equipment and rapidly-ballooning coaching staffs.

According to a recent New York Times article, in Iowa, suburban public high schools from Des Moines’ wealthiest suburbs have dominated recent state championships in all divisions (based on school size). High schools from the Des Moines urban area have a cumulative record of 0-104 against suburban Des Moines high schools.

About 75 percent of students at the urban high schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, compared with around 10 percent in neighboring suburban schools.

If you believed the NCAA, the difference has nothing to do with the facilities or the wealth of the community. As they said, it’s down to the individual, “if you have the talent and dedication.”

You will be unable to convince me that the students in suburban high schools consistently “want it more” or naturally have more talent, drive and dedication than those students from some of the poorest high schools in the nation. The difference has to have something — whether that manifests itself in private coaching, better facilities that improve athletic performance or better and more extensive coaching — in the wealth of the communities who these football teams represent.

Project Play, an initiative focused on youth sports from the Aspen Institute, found that youth sports participation rates are directly tied to the income levels of their communities they come from. Nearly 70 percent of children from families making more than $100,000 play sports. For families making under $25,000? That figure is cut in half.

In a sports culture that places an emphasis on winning at all levels, rather than development, that leaves many of those without the same advantages behind, taking away the equalizing benefits of scholarships to these universities and placing them in the hands of those who have had the best training and refining of their talents, as delivered by wealth.

The reason this matters? Because it’s clear, despite what the NCAA might say, that schools are in the business of winning, rather than developing. Yes, the NCAA and, say, the University of Tennessee will find a way to get you there, but only if you help the school win football games, score goals for the soccer team, make birdies for the golf team and win races for the track team.

The University of Tennessee is not interested in who you can become as an individual. They are interested in who you are as an athlete.

This is why the spirit of amateurism is dying at the highest levels of unpaid athletics. The games, matches, contests, meets, regattas are no longer about the forging of character against the crucible of athletics, as many colleges and universities put it when they began their programs in the 19th century. It’s about results, about winning, about the University of Texas beating the University of Oklahoma.

Kids from these wealthy high schools are reaping the rewards of a system designed to increase access to college. A win-first culture rewards your family’s wealth by giving scholarships to the best players, the fittest athletes, who, as seen above, almost always come from wealthier schools because of the opportunities they have been afforded.

So, this brings us back to where we all started, on high school football fields, with two athletes competing against one another for the opportunity of a lifetime. Your coaches from Hoover High School in Des Moines will tell you that the dimensions are the same, that there are 100 yards between the endzones. You’ll look over to your right and see a kid from Bishop Gorman lined up next to you. You’ll both start to sprint. The kid from Bishop Gorman will stop earlier than you.

Nick Saban will give him a scholarship offer, and you’ll be left standing there thinking, “What did he have that I didn’t?”