EDITOR’S NOTE: The parents and some of the coaches who spoke to the Deseret News asked not to be identified as they feared repercussions. We’ve identified the parents only by their school district.
The mom sat uncomfortably in the parent meeting listening to the costs associated with playing high school football. As coaches discussed the numbers, she started to worry.
“I was afraid I couldn’t afford it,” said the mother of three boys, one of whom plays football in the Granite District. “I started adding the costs up in my head, and I started to panic.”
Football was her oldest son’s favorite sport, but her budget was so tight that coming up with an extra $300 or $400 would be difficult. Another mom said the associated costs necessary to compete continued throughout the school year, and the pressure to pay was immense. In fact, she’s still paying for one trip that she put on a credit card a year ago.
“When they ask for $100 here or $100 there, I didn’t realize it was going to get up to that much,” said another mom, whose daughter participated in sports in the Canyons District. “I felt pressure. I didn’t really want to say, ‘I can’t afford it.’ ”
These mothers aren’t alone in their worry or confusion. As the popularity and profile of high school sports continues to grow, so too have the costs.
So just how much does it cost to play high school sports? Who decides what costs are fair and reasonable? And who ensures that children who can’t afford to pay can still play?
The Deseret News investigated these issues as they relate to the state’s highest-profile and most profitable sport — football.
Revenues and costs
A successful football program can translate into success and additional resources for a lot of other programs at the 103 Utah schools that participate in the sport.
“High school football is the beast, just like college football is the beast,” said Mike Fraser, a former football coach and Granite District’s assistant superintendent over school accountability services. “A great program funds a whole lot of things at the school. If you are a high school that has a really poor football program, you’re lucky if your gates cover your costs. … Your athletic programs are at a distinct disadvantage.”
Conversely, determining what it actually costs to play high school football is difficult. That’s because not only does it depend on where a student attends school, it also depends on what other "optional" costs are involved.
And while state laws protect and provide options for students without the means to pay, there is little if any enforcement of that law. There is also confusion about what the law requires of public schools' extracurricular programs.
The Deseret News asked nine school districts to summarize the costs of their football programs at each school. Of the 39 schools surveyed, only Murray, Enterprise and Provo high schools did not respond to the requests.
For families who have kids playing high school football, there are two primary costs: district fees and optional fees.
The district-approved or imposed fee is usually listed on fee schedules, which are available on school websites and are often mailed to parents before students register for school.
In all but the Salt Lake District, those fees were the same for every school within a district. The lowest fee reported was $35 at West High. Davis District’s $65 was the lowest standardized fee, while the Jordan District was the most expensive, charging a $175 participation fee.
These district fees are approved by each local school board and can be waived if students qualify.
Optional fees, however, are not so cut and dry. They can vary greatly from school to school and are determined by the coaches.
These optional fees range from zero to $830, but it’s difficult comparing these numbers due to the disparity of what is offered from school to school. It may also be misleading because students who participate at some of the schools who list no additional fees are expected to participate in fundraisers to pay for extra expenses, such as summer camps and spirit packs.
For example, Alta High reported the highest optional costs at $830. Head coach Bob Stephens offers a summer camp at Snow College for $290, weekly team meals for $90, summer weight training for $80, a fitness class for $35, a highlight video and pictures for $55, miscellaneous activities for $60, and a $220 spirit pack that includes a hooded sweatshirt, duffel bag, team-logoed T-shirt and shorts, compression shirt, core shorts, game socks, a practice girdle and a mouthpiece.
Contrast that with region rival and defending 5A state champion Jordan High. The Beetdiggers list only one optional fee — a $100 summer camp. The team, however, secures sponsorships from local businesses that donate team meals and help pay for other benefits.
Second-ranked 4A powerhouse East offers a summer camp, but head coach Brandon Matich said it’s a waivable fee for students who qualify. Matich said he relies on community support more than some because many of his student-athletes are unable to pay for proper equipment.
“If I charged as much as some programs, I’d have 10 kids playing,” Matich said.
Every school community is unique
Perennial powerhouse Bingham has the second-highest optional costs, but head coach Dave Peck believes he runs a very fiscally responsible program.
“I’m trying to build something special,” said Peck, whose optional costs total $700. “We want to be nationally respected.”
Both Stephens and Peck said they’re simply giving their communities what they want.
“I feel good about the program we run,” Peck said. “I’m doing everything I can to make a difference in these kids’ lives. Everything we’ve done at Bingham football, it’s under a microscope. Everything we do is transparent.”
All of the football forms, scheduled fundraisers and rules are on the team’s website, binghamfootball.org.
Stephens echoed Peck's sentiments, adding that he has had very few parents complaining about any costs and said parents often pitch in to help students who are struggling.
“If I told my kids they weren’t going to Snow (for the summer camp), they’d be devastated,” said Stephens. “We encourage them to go, but it’s absolutely optional.”
Both Stephens and Peck said they ask parents if they’d rather not travel or participate in out-of-town camps, but the parents' response is that they want what the coaches are offering.
Stephens and Peck also said they work hard to help those student-athletes who are struggling with financial requirements. “I’ve never turned a kid away,” said Peck.
Peck also admits he’s one of the lucky coaches. Bingham is in South Jordan, an affluent area, and not only are most parents able to pay whatever is necessary, local businesses are often eager to support the school’s activities and athletic programs monetarily.
“I tell them exactly how they can fundraise 100 percent if they would like,” he said. “If I was at Cyprus or Hunter, I would never be going to Price for $250 weeklong camps. I happen to be in an area where we’re able.”
But parents, some in these same affluent areas, said they pay because they feel there is no other choice. Their children have invested years in a sport, and so when coaches ask for money, they write checks.
“They keep telling you these things are optional, but everyone else is buying them,” said a Canyons District mom. “Are you going to let your kid be singled out?”
If it's not optional, it's not legal
Some parents who talked to the Deseret News said the costs created burdens for families and were deterrents for those already on the edge financially.
“It discourages people from even trying out,” said the Canyons District mom.
Even some coaches acknowledged that even if they don’t say it, parents and students feel the optional activities and costs are an obligation, necessary if their sons want to compete.
Utah State Office of Education officials said simply telling players a cost is optional does not solve the problem, and maybe more importantly, it doesn’t abide by the law that protects student-athletes from being excluded for financial reasons.
“What schools are doing, “ said Heidi Alder, an attorney and investigator with the Utah State Office of Education, “is charging the participation fee (set by the school board), and then adding into their own programs, not approved by the board, all of these quote-unquote optional fees.”
If a cost or fee is required to run a program, it has to be waivable for those who qualify. And only the school’s administration can make that determination, not coaches. However, since coaches are often the ones who see which kids are in greatest need, oftentimes they are the ones determining which kids' fees can be waived.
“The only fees they really should be charging are those approved by the local school board and notified to parents,” Alder said. “It really does skirt the rule, to say, ‘This is optional.’ ”
Alder, who teaches financial training to school officials as well as investigates ethical and legal complaints, isn’t alone in thinking statements about summer camps and spirit packs being optional is disingenuous.
“If the practice jersey is in the spirit pack, and it’s the practice jersey, then it’s not optional,” said Fraser, who started coaching football in 1976 and spent nine years as the head coach at Granger and five years as the head coach of Hunter. “If the team is going to a summer camp, it’s not optional.”
Understanding that reality, and knowing that the Granite District used to help fund these summer programs when he was a coach, prompted Fraser to lead a successful effort to convince the Granite Board of Education to find money to begin subsidizing those summer camps again.
Now Granite District schools have the option of holding a team camp at the high school for $50 and coaches are paid according to their education and experience (which usually means more money). The most important benefit is that those camps then become waivable fees for qualifying students.
“The reality is if a kid doesn’t come to camp, he doesn’t play,” said Fraser.
For their part, parents say they don’t need to hear the word “mandatory” from coaches; it’s simply understood.
“It’s not optional and everyone knows it,” said a Jordan District father. “If your son wants to make the team, you pay the money and he attends the camp. If they ask you for something, you give it, whether it’s time or money or whatever. You want your kid to play.”
But both Stephens and Peck said they have starting players who didn’t attend their summer camps for various reasons. And Alta principal Fidel Montero said he’s bothered the state would insinuate that coaches don’t mean it when they say a cost is optional.
“When we say it’s optional, we mean it,” Montero said. “I have really asked that all of our programs be as transparent as possible with what it costs for our student-athletes to participate. … And we really make a point of what’s optional. We also tell coaches, ‘Keep your eyes open for those who can’t afford it or who may need some support.’ ”
Changes and solutions
More expensive programs don’t necessarily win more football games, but many believe it does create an uneven playing field.
Fraser believes paying coaches — and a reasonable number of assistants — a fair wage for their summer camps and clinics will go a long way to eliminate the "freelancing," which creates a number of issues.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the Granite District made sure to do this, and Fraser said it made for a more level experience.
“Our district was very well represented (in the playoffs), and we weren’t breaking the kids to do it,” Fraser said.
When budget crunches eliminated that support, teams were left to figure out how to serve their students.
“We turned it over to the free marketplace, and within a year’s time, Kearns, Cyprus, Hunter were still paying those $30 fees for camp, while the others were charging what the market would bear — $300 or $400 and giving kids summer camp, spirit packs, etc.,” said Fraser. “Coaches said, ‘If nobody is going to regulate this, and it’s not against board policy, we’re going to (make money). … It accelerated very quickly.”
Yet another issue that entered the mix is open enrollment, which became law in the early 1990s and allowed parents to send their children to any school that has room to take them. This change made it necessary for schools, and in turn coaches, to differentiate themselves, oftentimes offering the latest equipment, training and costly trips to keep or attract athletes.
This change also coincided with the increased popularity of specialization and club sports. Football has become a year-round sport, meaning coaches have to offer something to their players in the offseason, even if it’s just weight lifting, in order to remain competitive.
While some believe this is just the price of modern sports, others believe the situation has gotten out of hand because of a lack of leadership and oversight, and it’s made it difficult for some schools to stay competitive.
“The reality is you spend a lot of money over the years for your kids to participate in high school athletics in affluent areas or (else) they don’t get the opportunity,” said a Jordan District father. “And schools in less affluent areas have trouble competing in that arena. It’s not a level playing field between schools and families of youth wanting to participate.”
The father estimated that playing two sports for 10 years, including four years of high school sports, cost the family a grand total of $40,000.
“Can Granger or Taylorsville or Kearns compete with that?” he asked. “Well, you see the results year after year. Once in awhile because of talent and heart, maybe. But on average, it’s not a level playing field.”
What is fair? Who will enforce the rules?
Bingham's Peck speaks for a lot of coaches when he said he’s trying his best to do what he can for high school athletes within the rules.
“If they want to change the rules, then let us know,” he said. “Someone’s got to tell me I’m doing something wrong, if I am. But I don’t feel I am. I don’t know what I could cut back on.”
For many, asking high school students to pay to play violates the mission statement of the Utah High School Activities Association, the organization that oversees prep sports.
“The whole idea of sports and what makes it great is that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” said a second Canyons District mother, who just moved to Utah from a state that relies on booster clubs, not parents, to cover the costs of athletics. “If you have talent, you can succeed and you can make it. Now they’re taking that away with the pay to play. You never even get a chance to show your athletic ability.”
Coaches have mixed feelings about the optional fees. In many ways, coaches have no choice but to offer many of the programs that drive those optional costs. It is simply the reality of modern high school sports.
But some do ask where does it end?
“The fees have gotten enormous with no criteria,” said Logan coach Mike Favero, whose only additional cost is a $75 summer camp. “What’s the right number and what’s fair?”
Granite District and its school board made massive rule changes aimed at controlling the costs of athletics and activities. Still, Fraser looks at what his schools are offering and asking, and acknowledges there is still room for improvement.
“The only hope that we have of getting this changed is to expose it,” he said. “I know it can be done.”
Alder said the state includes information about this rule in its financial training. While she believes most coaches and principals want to abide by the rules, there are some exceptions. She hopes school districts will ask more questions and keep better tabs on costs.
One coach, who asked for anonymity because he feared retaliation, said there is a serious lack of administrative leadership. Principals should be aware of the laws and rules, and they should be training their coaches. Alder said parents can report unfair or unlawful fees to the district or state. Parents said they’re reluctant to do that because their children just want to participate.
“I just don’t think that’s right,” said the second Canyons District mom. “The tradition of sports should be that everybody is able to play. It’s based on your talent. To me, this just seems like it’s based on your money.”