When high school athletes pay their coach thousands of dollars, we have to ask, "What is the price for success?"By the time a soccer player is a senior, he can expect to pay $2,200 during his high school career to attend just one of his coach's camps each summer. Those who make the varsity team or families with plenty of money may consider it a good investment, but is that what high school sports in Durango have become?
What about the kids who pay the money but find out that that their coach didn't even bother to attend their practice? And families that can't afford to pay are completely out of the loop - again. Public sports end up being for the public who pay extra.
Here's how it has worked at Durango High School: 1) Team literature and the coach's instructions advise players that off-season camps are important criteria for determining teams, 2) A camp featuring an elite guest coach is recommended above all other available programs and 3) The high school coach will be present to observe the players. Coincidentally, it's the most expensive camp on the calendar, although there's not a single souvenir, snack or even water.
What isn't publicized is that the camp is a private business of the DHS coach. Only a limited number of athletes that he pre-selects will be trained by him and the marquee guest coach. Most kids who pay $550 for the two-week experience are sent to other fields with assistant coaches.
Is that fair? And how does Durango measure success for school athletic programs? If it's the win-loss record or how many athletes go on to play in college, we're on the right track. The more money poured into the program, whether by taxpayers or parents, is what counts.
If the goal is a broad-based program that gives the most number of kids a chance at sports, including varsity competition, 9-R must reign in what has morphed into a pay-to-play system.
Do we want a market-driven athletic department where families pay inflated prices for expensive programs and access to the coach? If so, the families that already have bikes, ski passes and vacations also will have the inside track on school sports. The have-nots are left out unless they are incredibly gifted athletes from the start.
Off-season activities that offer extra opportunities for athletes are great. No one begrudges a coach being paid fairly for extra commitment to his team. But the process should be open, transparent and with full disclosure of how funds are collected and disbursed. There must be reasonable guidelines. In a community with one high school and one varsity coach, the potential for conflict of interest and exploitation is a real.
When I asked 9-R to account for the about $35,000 collected from DHS soccer players in the summer of 2008, I ran into a bureaucratic stone wall. The district refused to release the information or require the coach to do so.
Here's what I did learn: Private camps were booked on 9-R fields as if they were high school programs. Applications were fraudulently filled out, backdated and inserted into the 9-R archives. School calendars were retroactively altered to show the camps were correctly scheduled and officially approved.
Liability insurance required by the city of Durango and School District 9-R was never provided. Rent wasn't paid when due and none of this was an accident.
The truth was hidden through nondisclosure and deceit. At one point, it was claimed that the high school coach was just an administrator for a camp until it was proved that all checks were deposited into his business account.
DHS administrators claim there are no policies to prohibit these actions, but such documents have existed for years (they are posted at www.
DurangoNotebook.com). The principal and athletic director did not enforce rules. They didn't monitor staff for violations and wouldn't even know about them had not a parent dug them up. Transgressions are described as mistakes or communication problems.
The appointment of an independent panel chaired by Joel Jones is a start, but the panel is only charged to review recommendations by DHS staff, ensure policies are clearly written and address conflicts of interest. The panel's authority should be expanded to investigate all high school sports and activities for similar conduct. According to Keith Owen, violations are common. The panel should make recommendations based on community values and common sense, not just review what's proposed by the folks who let the system fall apart in the first place.
The way to judge a community sports program is not solely by how the best athletes are accommodated. Our character is proven by how kids at the end of the bench remember their experience. Even if they don't play, they should be grateful and certain they had a fair chance.
Jack Turner is a soccer parent.
He also was a collegiate and national team coach and was co-founder of the U.S. Ski Coaches Association.