There’s a concept in college sports used to identify specific institutions that seem set up for processing athletes in and out of their programs and on to whichever professional league they hope to join: One-and-done. In basketball, schools like Kentucky, Duke and Kansas — the heavyweights of the NCAA — stand out as the most notorious one-and-dones. Take Duke’s 2018-2019 roster as an example; three of their starting five players, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett, were freshmen and have gone on to be drafted by NBA teams. They got to college, played for a year, and then went on to the pros.
All is fair in their decisions; the three aforementioned players possess incredible skill and are athletically gifted. There are high expectations for their success in the NBA and, frankly, they made other college players look silly during the season, so the professional level was the sensible next step.
Schools like Duke or Kentucky seem to market themselves towards these stars, and with good reason; having players enter college already able to compete with the best yields a better overall team, which leads to more wins, more tournament qualifications and more chances at a championship. Duke made it to the Final Four with a starting five made up of four freshmen and a junior, competing against teams stacked with upperclassmen.
The recruitment efforts put forth by these schools, and others across sports like football, baseball and track, see millions of dollars spent annually on personnel, travel, accommodations and more. It’s understandable why; these recruits represent a portion of the potential earnings of the college, especially those with reputations of high-quality teams or nationally televised games.
As a result of the mentality that colleges instill in their recruitment processes, high school athletes are subject to a world where sports are driven by factors other than passion, a desire to win or simply having fun. There are hundreds of thousands of high school athletes, and obviously not all are going to college for their respective sport. Yet, for those that exemplify above-average talent, those that distinguish themselves amongst their peers or the competition, suddenly the possibilities begin to unveil themselves and the pressure subtly mounts.
One of the best examples of this in history is LeBron James as a high school athlete. As early as the age of 15, as a sophomore in high school, James was a superstar; he signed autographs after games, took photos, received free merchandise (which actually got him in trouble) and was subject to endless comparisons that ensured his play would be scrutinized for years to come. This was a kid trying to enjoy the sport of basketball and, while I won’t play ignorant and act like he wasn’t aware of his gifts, it’s not unreasonable to believe the pressure took away from the joy of his participation; he mentions as much in a movie titled “More Than a Game”.
High school sports are slowly becoming more and more subject to the same process that dictates college sports. Recruitment starts at younger ages, placing pressure on athletes still developing their skills and emotional maturity. The prospect of having college partially or entirely paid for, being able to perform on a national scale and the possibility of playing as a professional, causes kids to create unnecessary expectations of themselves.
Every year, thousands of videos are posted on YouTube that display highlight reels of high school athletes, various organizations like Rival and 247Sports create ranking systems for athletes to determine their college potential and some schools, such as Oak Hill Academy, establish themselves as prep institutions for specific sports. Through it all, a vital importance is being forgotten: Why these sports exist at the high school level in the first place.
High school sports were not, and still are not, intended as a gateway to college. They weren’t established to help students ascend to the professional leagues and earn millions of dollars. Sports are popular because of their basic nature — they’re enjoyable. Whether it’s the actual act, the varying sensations of play such as catching passes as a wide receiver, sinking a three pointer in basketball or hitting a home run in baseball, or the feeling of joy when your team wins, sports make us feel good. For kids, that’s a great thing to chase. Sports are also social, providing a comfortable means of introduction and camaraderie to students who are in perhaps the most socially difficult period of their lives; it’s easier to make friends when you’re already teammates.
Teenagers are under an enormous amount of stress in high school; between the social pressures, the ever-encroaching prospect of college looming over them and the personal changes they undergo, life becomes quite complex and difficult. Sports are an outlet, a means to liberate oneself from those stresses and embrace a period, albeit a brief one, where the sole focus is practicing or striving to win. Sure, there comes a stress with trying to win in sports, but it’s a simpler form than thinking about your future.
Sports can offer a lifetime to a select few. They can hold the key to great achievements in life and financial reward, but the pool of those who will reach such heights is incredibly small.
There were great commercials that ran between college sports games that showed students across various fields of study who also participated in sports. The message of the commercial was that 99 percent of college athletes were going pro in something other than sports. It was a powerful message that reminded people of what sacrifices these athletes were making and the reality of their situations.
That was college, where the athletes were at least somewhat exposed to real world circumstances and legal adults. At the high school level, I imagine the message would be simpler, something like: These are kids trying to have fun, relax with the analysis.