by Beau Dure

The stereotype of youth sports parents is that they’re sinking tens of thousands of dollars into their kids’ athletic development in the hopes of getting a scholarship that probably won’t pay all that money back.

The truth is a little different. A lot of parents aren’t pinning their hopes on an ironically named “scholarship.” They just want to get a foot in the door.

With COVID-19 and the “Varsity Blues” scandal forcing universities to rethink priorities, that door might be more difficult to open.

As part of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, parents managed to get kids admitted to the colleges of their choice by bribing coaches to falsify their sports accomplishments. Coaches who’ve pleaded guilty to a variety of related charges include former UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo, former Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith, former USC women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin and assistant Laura Janke.

As the scandal unfolded, The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper of the Ivy League school that dismissed its fencing coach in connection with the sale of his house to a recruit’s father, investigated its own university admissions. Harvard insisted that it didn’t reserve specific slots in each class for recruited athletes, but a 2018 analysis by Students for Fair Admissions -- a group that sued Harvard on unrelated admissions issues -- showed that athletes in the fourth tier of the admissions department’s academic rankings had a 70.46% chance of admission. Non-athletes in the same tier were admitted 0.076% of the time.

The Ivy League isn’t strong in football -- its teams don’t even accept bids in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) playoffs -- but the emphasis on a well-rounded sports program shows up in the Learfield IMG College Directors’ Cup. In 2018-19, Princeton finished 30th, ahead of sports powerhouses such as Alabama, Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Louisville and Auburn. Harvard was next at 57th, one place ahead of Miami (Fla.).

Even the top 10 overall schools lean heavily toward academic excellence. Stanford, sixth in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the nation’s best universities, placed first in the Directors’ Cup. Duke finished 10th at U.S. News and ninth in the Directors’ Cup. The public schools in the Directors’ Cup Top 10 included top U.S. News public universities such as Michigan, Texas, UCLA, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

It’s the same story in Division III -- which, like the Ivy League, doesn’t offer specific athletic scholarships. The top five in the Directors’ Cup are Williams, Johns Hopkins (not including its Division I lacrosse teams), Washington University (St. Louis), Middlebury and Emory -- all top-tier academic schools. No. 6 is U.S. News’ third-ranked university -- MIT, which claims not to do “signings” but says coaches “may choose to advocate for you in the admissions process, support that we consider along with the rest of your application.”

All told, 25% of students at Division III schools are athletes. And high schools celebrate their student-athletes’ commitments to these schools. Even if they’re going to MIT. The kid from your Science Olympiad team or drumline likely won’t get the same ceremony.

So the stereotype of athletes ignoring academics often doesn’t apply. But neither does the notion that sports pay the bills.

At most Division I schools, these athletic endeavors are what a corporation would call a “loss leader.” Even in the “Power Five” conferences, awash in football and basketball money, a lot of schools pull in student fees to help balance the budget. The “non-revenue sports” -- including Olympic sports and soccer -- don’t help the bottom line.

“(T)he vast majority of Olympic sports teams, both Group of Five and Power 5, turn an annual loss in the six figures, if not seven,” Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde reported in Sports Illustrated.

The move toward the “Power Five” over the past 30 years, while revving up the revenue in the high-dollar sports, also yielded new expenses. The vast expanses of an Atlantic Coast Conference that covers the entire Atlantic coast and an inaccurately named “Big Ten” conference spanning from New Jersey to Nebraska forced the non-revenue teams to travel as if they were in the NBA or NHL. Justifying a couple of long trips for football Saturdays is a little easier than writing the checks for a 700-mile trip for a Thursday night field hockey game.

One justification for college sports is the bonding effect they have on students and alumni alike. Alumni can commiserate over a team’s successes and failures, though that seems less likely for cross-country and bowling than it does for football and basketball. Students have high-quality sports to see on campus, and they can go to class with overachievers.

For generations, few have questioned the desire to spend more and more. Meeting Title IX requirements meant adding a women’s rowing or equestrian team, not cutting a men’s sport. (Wrestling advocates would argue that it sometimes means both.) Professional European sports clubs would love to have some of the facilities U.S. universities have built up over the years in an effort to impress recruits.

Then you have the athletic department staffs. Stanford lists 17 people under “administration,” nine under academic services, 11 under communications, five under compliance, 13 under “sports performance,” a small army of trainers, three “Offensive Quality Control Analysts” for the football team, and many more. Indiana has a smaller group under administration but 18 employees and four interns in the “academic services and excellence academy.” MIT has smaller admin departments but manages to have six assistant coaches in field hockey.

As long as colleges have been willing to spend all this money, parents have continued to spend as well. They pay for private coaches. They upload video highlights. And yes, they play travel soccer.

The sports-industrial complex isn’t going away. Not entirely. But traveling may be more expensive, at least in the short term. Revenues from home football and maybe basketball games are in jeopardy. Campuses as a whole are looking at the potential of deferred or declining enrollment, the expense of switching facilities to distance learning, the expense of renting hotels and apartments to make dorms less crowded, and a general lack of income from having people on campus.

So the budget looking bleaker and “Varsity Blues” denting the image of the student-athlete, facilities’ price tags will raise more alarm. The football team might have to go with only two analysts ensuring the quality of the offense.

And the soccer teams may travel a bit less. Or get cut entirely. Some schools may simply see club soccer as a cheaper option than varsity soccer.

All the more reason to rethink youth parents’ spending priorities while the colleges rethink theirs. And if you’re a soccer player trying to practice in your backyard, maybe spend some time hitting those books to get a head start on those history and precalculus classes this fall.