By Robert B. Gardner, NFHS Executive Director, and Rick Wulkow, NFHS President
Since the High School Athletics Participation Survey was started by the NFHS in 1971, soccer has been the runaway leader on the growth charts. That first survey indicated 78,000 boys and 700 girls played soccer at the high school level. Today, there are about 400,000 boys and 360,000 girls playing the sport at approximately 11,000 high schools.
Forty years ago, soccer was the 10th-most popular high school sport for boys. Today, having passed wrestling, cross country, golf, swimming and tennis, it has moved to No. 5. Only the longstanding entrenched sports of football, track and field, basketball and baseball have a higher number of participants than soccer.
In addition, there has been an increase in the number of boys participating in high school soccer for 32 consecutive years; however, that streak may come to an end when figures for the 2012-13 season are tabulated because of an unfortunate ruling by U.S. Soccer.
Earlier this year, U.S. Soccer – the sport’s governing body in the United States – announced that it was moving to a 10-month season with its U.S. Soccer Development Academy effective with the 2012-13 season. As a result of this action, the approximately 4,000 boys who compete in the 78-team Development Academy will no longer be able to play soccer on their high school teams.
Since 2007 when the Development Academy was created, boys on these Olympic Development Program (ODP) clubs were able to play on their high school team in the fall – at least in those states that sponsor the sport in the fall – and then join the ODP club after the high school season concluded.
The “club vs. high school” debate has been a longstanding issue with the sport of soccer. The United States is unique among international soccer powers in that the sport has a strong tradition of scholastic participation and exists within an education-based school setting. While we believe this is a positive step, U.S. Soccer is trying to adopt the year-round, sell-yourself-out approach that exists in the majority of countries in the world.
Obviously, we are extremely disappointed with this ruling by U.S. Soccer, particularly given the fact that our schools have attempted to co-exist. Many NFHS member state associations have enacted specific bylaw provisions to permit ODP participation by high school athletes. There seems to be no spirit of unity or cooperation with this latest move by U.S. Soccer.
In addition, the Amateur Sports Act, which was revised in 1998, imposes on U.S. Soccer and other National Governing Bodies the “duty” to work cooperatively with entities such as state high school associations in order to protect young people and the institutions that serve them.
U.S. Soccer’s desire is to prepare players to compete against the best clubs and international teams around the world. It is preposterous, however, to think that having these elite players for another two to three months is the answer and will close the gap between the United States and soccer powers from other nations.
Jason Pendleton, soccer coach at Blue Valley Southwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas, said it best:
“I understand that the U.S. wants to be the best at everything, but I don’t think the reason the national team hasn’t flourished is because our kids are playing high school sports. Our best athletes in America still aren’t migrating to soccer. … My concern is that, at the end of the day, it’s going to be only about soccer. At the high school level, the focus isn’t just on soccer but also the development as a student-athlete and human being.”
While the number of boys involved in these programs is small – approximately 4,000 of 400,000 – it is unfair for these individuals to have to make a choice. But if any of these 4,000 elite players have any hopes or desire to play professional soccer or to be selected for the Olympic team, they are being told that path cannot include playing on their high school team. That is wrong.
This decision affects the other 396,000 boys on high school teams as well. They are made to feel separate and unequal, which seems to be at odds with U.S. Soccer’s mission of growing the sport.
We will continue our efforts to persuade U.S. Soccer to reverse this decision so that these 4,000 individuals can continue to enjoy the benefits of education-based interscholastic sports.