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The era (and myth) of the one-sport prep athlete

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First of all, it speaks to their athleticism. The more sports they can do, the more talented they are as an athlete. Sometimes kids ask if they should run track, and my answer is an emphatic yes. – Kyle Whittingham

It began with a tweet that went viral — a chart claiming that 42 of the 47 recruits signed by Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer were multi-sport athletes in high school. That started an Internet discussion: If college coaches such as Meyer seem to prefer multi-sport athletes, why do so many high school athletes specialize in one sport?

The multi-sport high school athlete is gone; we all know this. It's a thing of the past, like black and white TV. It’s the era of specialization, of kids “focusing” on one sport, often because they (or their parents) are chasing (often unrealistically) a scholarship, or because coaches have made it too difficult to do other sports.

Ohio State’s sports information office could not confirm the veracity of the tweet, but a quick study of Ohio State’s roster for the 2014 national championship season revealed that at least 52 players played more than one sport in high school and 17 of them played three sports (there might be others, but it wasn’t noted in their player bios). Among defensive backs, running backs, receivers and quarterbacks, 35 were multiple-sport athletes.

Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham is such a proponent of multi-sport athletes that he volunteered to have his staff research the subject when he learned the nature of this story. A few days later Ute coaches reported that 37 of 47 players on their two-deep roster for the 2014 Las Vegas Bowl played at least two sports in high school — 18 on offense, 19 on defense.

They also found that of the 26 former Utah players who were on NFL rosters last season (including practice squads), at least 18 of them played multiple sports in high school — nine on defense, nine on offense. Steve Smith ran track. Matt Asiata played basketball. Jake Murphy played basketball, baseball and football. Of the Utes’ four offensive linemen in the league, three of them were three-sport prep athletes and the other played two sports. Jacksonville’s Zane Beadles played football, basketball and baseball at Hillcrest High.

“I’m an absolute believer; kids should play all the sports they possibly can,” says Whittingham. “We prefer our recruits play other sports. That’s a good sign if a guy is playing two or three sports.”

Utah State football coach Matt Wells estimates that half of the players he signed in this year’s recruiting class are two- and three-sport players. “When players specialize in football, it can be a positive thing because they’re learning specific weight training techniques, but I’m absolutely a proponent of multi-sport athletes,” he says. “I recruit those kids. They’re in a competitive arena two or three times a year.”

To further drive home the point, consider this: ESPN surveyed 128 current and former NFL quarterbacks and found that 122 of them were multi-sport athletes in high school. The vast majority of them (nearly 70 percent) had played at least three sports.

There are few statistics on multi-sport prep athletes (the Utah High School Activities Association doesn’t track such things), although a 2008 survey of Indiana schools revealed that only 28 percent of athletes in big schools (1,200 or more) played more than one sport.

Mostly, there is anecdotal evidence of just how specialized prep sports have become. Visit any school, especially the bigger ones, and you’ll find specialization. For instance, Jordan High reports that only three of its boys basketball players and 14 of its football players played another sport. Alta High officials estimate that only 20-25 percent of its athletes play multiple sports.

“It’s very uncommon to find multi-sport athletes in the bigger schools,” says Rob Cuff, executive director of the Utah High School Activities Association. “The kids are specializing in one sport and going for the scholarship.”

Compared to other sports, football seems to be the most athletically diverse. Indoor sports such as basketball and volleyball are played year-round. Soccer is also played year-round, indoors or out, in all weather. All three of these sports thrive on the club system, which runs most of the year.

The era of specialization has seen a proliferation of club sports, all of them dangling the same scholarship carrot in front of kids’ noses. Some of the clubs are money-making ventures and the scholarship is an illusory marketing ploy. Many of the kids say they are told they will get a scholarship if they "play club" year-round.

In 2012, the Utah Youth Soccer Association reported that 41,000 kids played club soccer in the state. According to the Deseret News’ annual athletic scholarship tally, a total of just 88 scholarships were awarded to girl and boy soccer players for the 2013-14 class in Utah. The vast majority of those are partial scholarships to small schools (Western Nebraska Community College, Iowa Western, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Western Wyoming CC, Iowa Lakes CC). Even if the report missed a few scholarships, the number of scholarship winners is low — 1.4 percent nationally at the NCAA Division I level, according to ScholarshipStats.com.

Most wanna-be college basketball players play AAU club ball in the offseason during their high school years, so there is no real offseason and they rarely play in other sports. The odds of getting a Division I basketball scholarship are 1 percent, according to ScholarshipStats.com.

It is widely reported that 2.4 percent of high school football players will play NCAA Division I football, which consists of 128 FBS schools (formerly Division I-A) and 124 FCS schools (formerly Division I-AA). The odds are even greater for an FBS scholarship. Earlier this spring, 120 Utah kids signed letters of intent to play college football — only 35 of them with an FBS school.

ScholarshipStats reports that just 2 percent of high school athletes will play sports at the Division I level.

If kids are specializing largely because they think it will help them get a scholarship — and this is a frequent justification — they face long odds. Meanwhile, they are missing other opportunities. As Cuff puts it, “The main factor is parents thinking their kids need to specialize to get a scholarship. It’s a myth.”

If football players are specializing because they believe it will increase their chances of playing the college game, they are missing this irony: Most football coaches probably prefer multi-sport athletes, which is why the dearth of multi-sport athletes on high school teams is not reflected on college football rosters.

“It sends a kid’s stock up,” says Wells about playing more than one sport. “It also gives (college) coaches more measurables. If he runs track, what’s his 100 time? What’s his best long jump? It gives us more data to recruit with. I love to watch high school basketball games. You can see a lot of things about a kid’s competiveness and athleticism.”

“First of all, it speaks to their athleticism,” says Whittingham. “The more sports they can do, the more talented they are as an athlete. Sometimes kids ask if they should run track, and my answer is an emphatic yes.”

Along with clubs in the so-called “minor sports,” the football world has seen a proliferation of power-lifting meets, football camps, seven-on-seven tournaments, and specialized private training, many of them serving as profitable businesses that double as meat markets. So football players spend their offseason jumping up and down on boxes and lifting weights when they could be jumping up and down on basketball courts (think plyometrics) or learning balance, footwork and leverage on the wrestling mat or honing speed on the track while also meeting the pressure and challenge of competition.

“I’ve never missed on a wrestler,” says Wells. “I’m not saying every wrestler can also play football; I’m saying all the football players who are good wrestlers are good (football players). I’m a big believer in the dual-sport guys.”

“My bias is toward guys who play basketball,” says Fred Whittingham, Utah’s director of player personnel. “It indicates footwork, overall athleticism, body control. If you’re good enough to play at the next level, you’ll get there without focusing on one sport.”

But basketball, with its emphasis on year-round club tournaments, is probably the sport that has the fewest athletes who venture into other sports. Last season, the men’s basketball teams at BYU and Utah State each had just four players who were multi-sport athletes in high school. If Utah has any players who played other sports in high school, it is not mentioned in their bios.

“In order to make that elite (club) team, there’s pressure to stay with that team during the spring, summer and fall and sometimes in the winter,” says BYU basketball coach Dave Rose. “When I was growing up, when the fall came it was football season and when the winter came it was basketball season and the spring and summer were baseball … you just moved onto the next sport. Now, coaches run their programs all year round and put a lot of pressure on these kids to decide at an early age.”

Rose prefers that kids play multiple sports as long as they can, but ask him if it’s necessary for basketball players to specialize in high school, he says, “I hate to say it, but I think it’s starting to get that way for most players. For the real elite athlete, he can still get away with telling his coaches when he’s going to play and what team he’s going to play on, but for the majority of (players), specialization has become a requirement.

“A lot of it is because (that’s) when they get noticed. In our sport, basketball season is in the winter, but college coaches watch young prospects mostly in the summer, so if you’re involved in another sport during the spring and summer we’re not going to see that. It’s hard to watch a lot of high school (basketball) games because that’s when we’re coaching our team. If you want to get some exposure, specializing has kind of become a necessity.”

No one can fault a kid who loves a sport so much that he/she wants to throw himself/herself into it year-round, even it’s wrongheaded, but not when he is being pressured by adults to do so. Cuff believes much of the one-sport focus is driven by parents dreaming of scholarships, but coaches play a huge role, as well.

Many coaches don’t share athletes; they demand, implicitly or explicitly, that kids compete in their sport year-round. Coaches can also have a conflict of interest since some charge kids fees to conduct specialized off-season training programs. So instead of playing spring sports, for instance, the kids feel compelled to play in the "spring fling" basketball games or seven-on-seven tournaments or spring football drills or football-connected powerlifting meets.

Such is not the case at Bingham High. The varsity/JV basketball team consisted of 12 football players (and two former football players). Dave Peck, who recently retired as the school’s football coach, estimates that 50 percent of his players played more than one sport.

“A lot of it is because of the coaches,” says Peck. “We get along so well, and we’ve always promoted multi-sport athletes. We share athletes, and we never put a kid in an awkward position. If there’s a camp or some schedule conflict between sports, the coaches get together and make a decision so the kid isn’t put on the spot. Most of the time we ask ourselves which sport does he have the best chance to play at the next level and go with that. We work it out. It’s a big reason why Bingham is so good in so many sports.”

The coaches of girls sports at Jordan also are known to encourage and facilitate multi-sport athletes (10 girl basketball players played other sports). “The coaches are good about sharing athletes and accommodating their other sports,” says athletic director Brandon Watts.

This is striking at the heart of the matter, if you listen to Cuff. He believes that the era of specialization began when coaches began coaching just one sport instead of two or three as they once did, which encouraged and enabled kids to move from one sport to the next.

“When coaches started focusing on one sport, the kids followed,” says Cuff.

It would be naive to think the trend toward specialization will reverse itself, but coaches, parents and athletes should consider the ramifications and possibilities, as well as examine their motives, when they make such decisions.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com