A few years ago, when asked what was the most important issue that needed to be addressed in high school sports, administrators and coaches singled out the proliferation of drugs, emphasis on transfers and the controversy over the PublicCatholicmultiplier debate.
Surprisingly, in a recent survey, those issues weren't even mentioned. Today, school officials are more concerned with the exploitation of high school athletes by colleges and shoe companies, the rise of individualism, over-publicizing of athletes by the media and influence of club sports.
"The biggest problem is maintaining perspective of the high school experience, when we don't get carried away with club teams and travel teams and spend thousands of dollars to go all over the country and get special training," said Marty Hickman, executive director of the Illinois High School Association.
"The high school experience is supposed to be fun and competitive and losing that perspective has caused those other problems, the proliferation of clubs and prep schools and the emphasis on college scholarships."
Jim Woodward of Anna-Jonesboro, president of the IHSA's board of directors, points out how club teams that once were only an issue in the Chicago area have spread throughout southern Illinois, not only in basketball but also volleyball, softball, baseball and soccer. In the Chicago area, tennis and gymnastics clubs also are wooing athletes away from their high school programs.
"About 15 years ago, I sat on a committee dealing with summer contact periods. At that time, 90 percent of the people were ready to shut down schools in the summer and let the kids be kids," Woodward said.
"Then southern Illinois schools said we need to do more for our coaches to keep the kids away from club sports and AAU coaches. We didn't have a problem in southern Illinois but we do now--and we have for the last few years.
"It used to be that we (the high schools) had the only ball in town. Now with all different club and AAU teams, they have pulled kids away and caused them to specialize in one sport. Parents are willing to spend a lot of money to move so their kids get more exposure, pay for personal trainers and play for elite clubs."
Woodward said the definition of high school sports is to sell sports as part of the curriculum or the educational process. "It is an extension of what we do in the day. But the summer people sell Division I scholarships and an opportunity to play at the next level and the level beyond that," he said.
"The emphasis is all about winning. We want to win in high school, too, but it isn't the main emphasis. We have created a monster. Kids don't want to sit on the bench anymore. Everybody in high school has a role, from the kid who averages 20 points per game to the kid who just plays in practice. High school sports help to prepare a kid for life."
Jim Prunty, athletic director at St. Ignatius and a member of the IHSA's legislative commission, also cites the "ever-growing conflict between club sports and interscholastic athletics in terms of how it is now spilling over into basketball, soccer and volleyball."
Prunty said players, not just elite players, are going to clubs to play a style that is not in conjunction with their high school program. "They pick up bad habits and change personality based on their experience at the club level," he said.
What is the solution to the problem? "Because it is financially better for college coaches to evaluate kids in the summer rather than when they play with their high school teams, the NCAA must limit contact between club coaches and college coaches. If it means eliminating contact altogether in the summer, I would be in favor of it," Prunty said.
"But it won't happen because it is easier for the NCAA to operate the way they do now. All club and travel programs are lumped into the same bag. But there are good people who teach the way we do. I am aware of it."
If something isn't done, however, Prunty fears for the future of high school sports. Parents have gotten out of control and specialization is ruining high school sports.
"Parents have club coaches fawning over their sons and daughters from an early age and expect that attention to be there throughout their careers. Yes, they are coddled, made to feel they are more important at an early age. That isn't healthy for kids," Prunty said.
"Specialization is part of the club dilemma. Kids are told if they play basketball and devote all their time, they can make it to the NBA. At St. Ignatius, we encourage kids to be multi-sport athletes. We have no inter-departmental struggles like other schools.
"But we're getting to the point--I hope I have to eat these words--that I wouldn't be shocked that in 15 to 20 years there are no more high school sports. Basketball, for example, will take a complete backseat to the AAU."
Steve Goers of Rockford Boylan and Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph, the two winningest boys basketball coaches in state history, are concerned by a rising lack of loyalty, increasing number of transfers and an emphasis on individualism, all influenced by the athletes' relationships with summer coaches and club sports.
"Individuals are putting themselves ahead of teams," Goers said. "For there to be team success, individuals have to put the team ahead of their personal success. They can't worry about their own accomplishments. You receive your due recognition based on how well the team will do.
"College coaches want to know if a kid is a team player, a good teammate, a good person. You read every day about kids being suspended for disciplinary or even more serious reasons and it jeopardizes the coach's job. There are so many more influences outside the coach and his staff today. It takes away from the idea that team is first. If a coach tries to discipline kids, they blame the coach rather than accept blame."
Pingatore is offended by the lack of loyalty displayed by many kids today, transferring from school to school. He blames the influence of the AAU. Twenty-five years ago, he said he had control of his program. That is no longer the case. Now he sees that many kids have better relationships with their summer coaches than their high school coaches.
"People move on a whim. It happens so much. We lost four starters on the football team. They went to programs where they felt they could win," he said. "Maybe this is the tip of the iceberg. Maybe the transfer thing is a sign of something else that isn't good in high school sports--outside influences.
"I don't know who is talking to my kids. I used to be in control of my program. Now I have to start all over again. I have to teach a kid all over again. I don't know who he is listening to, what someone is teaching him, who is telling kids to go to other schools.
"High schools need more control in all sports. The NCAA has control. They should talk about eliminating the summer evaluation period. Then AAU coaches can't say that kids have to follow them so they will get exposure to college coaches.
"Also, part of the problem is parents are obsessed with their kids getting Division I scholarships. They don't know how difficult it is. They fear if their kid doesn't go to a camp he will miss out. There are so many outside influences. High school coaches just don't have control as they once did."
Jim Antos, principal at Brother Rice and a member of the IHSA's legislative commission, has one issue that bothers him more than anything else--how local newspapers make kids feel they are a special class of citizen.
"It troubles me when kids think they can get away with things because they are athletes," Antos said. "I know kids should be covered (in the media) and people are making a living. But too much is being made of making kids untouchable. They are being turned into rock stars. If I could wave a magic wand, I would tell them: 'If a kid doesn't smile, don't put his picture in the paper.' It perpetuates an 'I'm too good for the world'
attitude that I really can't get my arms around."