Winning takes money – even in high school athletics.
High schools with a high percentage of poor students rarely win titles in the so-called country club sports – tennis, golf and swimming – and the number of sports in which the more affluent dominate is growing.
A News & Observer analysis of state championships from 2001-02 through 2012-13 shows that the percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price meals, which is an indication of students living in need, is a predictor of high school athletic success at the 3A and 4A level – the two largest school classifications by enrollment. In sports other than football, track and basketball, the smaller the percentage of students who receive aid, the greater chance the school will win championships, the analysis showed.
In North Carolina, 46 percent of high school students in 2013-14 received a free lunch or meals at a reduced price, according to the Department of Public Instruction. The percentage in Wake County was 34 percent.
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Schools that had less than 40 percent of its student receiving free or reduced-price meals won 557 North Carolina High School Athletic Association championships during the period studied. Schools with 60 percent and above won 112 titles. The few schools where more than 80 percent of the students received free or reduced-price meals won only 10 state crowns.
In boys’ golf, 39 of 48 team champions were from schools with less than a 40 percent rate. In boys’ tennis, 37 of 48 titles went to schools with less than 40 percent of students receiving free and reduced price. In boys’ swimming, all 36 titles were won by schools with rates of less than 40 percent. Golf, tennis and swimming have long been dominated by players whose parents often spend thousands of dollars a year on coaching, travel, and club fees that allow their children access to year-round teams and better facilities.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association, in an effort to help the poorest schools, will this fall provide them with additional money.
557 State titles by teams with less than 40 percent free and reduced lunches
112 State titles by teams with more than 60 percent free and reduced lunches
10 State titles by teams with more than 80 percent free and reduced lunches
Bob Gardner, executive director of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, says the gap between the haves and have-nots is spreading to sports such as volleyball, baseball, lacrosse, softball and soccer.
“There is no question that more and more students in more and more sports are specializing, and there are costs involved with that,” Gardner said. “We have long known there are advantages in sports like golf, tennis and swimming, but we are seeing that in other sports now.”
Gardner says the correlation between wealth and winning is a concern. “Making sure that high school athletics success doesn’t become something only for the elite is a national topic,” he said.
The impact of poverty on high school sports mirrors the academic problems faced by financially needy public school systems throughout the state – and nation. A child’s inability to play on a winning golf team may not be as important as a student’s ability to pass an end-of-grade math test. But studies have shown that sports can keep kids in school, motivate them to graduate and boost their self-esteem, which can translate into academic success.
Karena Zhang, a rising senior girls tennis player at Green Hope, which has a free or reduced-price meal rate of 7 percent, plays her sport year-round.
Zhang says she practices mostly with her mother and does not have a private coach, but that coaching is readily available for players in the area who want it.
“My neighborhood has tennis courts, most neighborhoods around here do,” Zhang said. “Coaching is pretty readily available at Cary Tennis Park or Prestonwood Country Club or places like that. I can easily practice. I don’t have to spend money necessarily, because the Town of Cary has a lot of places that I can play at. If I want to practice I can talk to one of my friends, and we all drive, and I know a lot of other kids can’t because they don’t have cars or they don’t have access to tennis courts like that.”
Tournaments can cost between $40 and $100, “But besides that you also have to pay for travel, hotels, food, just all of that miscellaneous stuff,” Zhang said.
“I definitely believe Green Hope is good at athletics because most of the kids who go there, their family (makes) at least a medium income and they have the ability to pay for coaching, for equipment, for transportation and stuff like that,” Zhang said.
The kids on my team can afford to go to tennis camps, have access to facilities and in most cases have private coaches.
Enloe Green tennis coach Steve Spivey
Enloe High tennis coach Steve Spivey, whose teams won 17 state titles while at Broughton, said almost all of his most successful players through the years had access to great facilities, coaching and opportunities outside of high school competition.
“The kids on my team can afford to go to tennis camps, have access to facilities and in most cases have private coaches.”
Expenses, including travel and uniforms, for the Triangle Volleyball Club can exceed $8,000 per player a year, according to its website.
Of the 48 NCHSAA volleyball titles during the period studied by The News & Observer, 36 were claimed by schools with a free or reduced-price meal rate of less than 40 percent.
“Volleyball definitely is a sport where you need some financial access at the higher levels,” said Broughton High volleyball coach Jim Freeman, whose Cardinal Gibbons High teams won 12 state titles and who is also a club team coach. “I remember telling a reporter when we were playing West Henderson in the state finals that their girls and our girls played club volleyball year-round. There was no way to teach and learn in the preseason and during the season (alone) the things the girls on those two teams did.”
Emily Stanley, a Lee County graduate and former N&O All-Metro volleyball selection, played against southwestern Wake teams her first two years, when Lee County was a 4A team. She played against more rural teams in the Sandhills when Lee dropped to 3A. Lee County did not make the playoffs in its last six years of being a 4A school, but in two years at 3A, the Yellow Jackets made the playoffs twice, going 28-2 in 2014.
Lee has a higher free or reduced-price meal rate (52.5 percent) than all of their former Wake opponents but ranks in the middle of the seven-team Cape Fear Valley 3A Conference (lowest is 33, highest is 78).
“Whenever we would play Apex or Fuquay-Varina, some of the bigger schools, almost all of the players played travel volleyball either together or at least another form of the sport all year round,” Stanley said. “Whenever we would play the 4A schools, you could just tell the difference.”
‘We see the need’
High school athletics are very different in Wake County, where the free or reduced-price meal rate is 34 percent, and in Chapel Hill-Carrboro (22 percent), than they are in Washington County high schools, where 87 percent of the students are needy.
Most Wake County 4A schools have 23 varsity sports and plenty of junior varsity teams, including a few schools that have multiple junior varsity teams for one sport.
But at Weldon High, where 71 percent of the students are defined as needy, and at Plymouth High (87 percent) there are only six varsity sports.
Whenever we would play the 4A schools, you could just tell the difference.
Former Lee County volleyball player Emily Stanley
The NCHSAA has seen the trend and beginning this fall will provide additional funds to the most needy schools. The association has in recent years sent funds to schools from various sources.
“We see the need,” said Karen DeHart, an NCHSAA assistant commissioner. “We are trying to find ways to help those systems that need the help the most.”
The NCHSAA will return 60 percent of the interest income on its General Association Investment account to the schools using a formula to determine what percentage of the pot each school will get. The formula looks at the poverty levels in the county school systems, the free and reduced-price meal rate at the schools, and the number of varsity sports the school fields.
The interest income will vary from year to year according to returns, but it is expected to provide at least $150,000 per year to be shared by the association’s 402 schools.
Garner Magnet High School boys basketball coach Eddie Gray hit on the theme of disparity before his Trojans took the Smith Center court in March for the state 4A basketball championship game against Charlotte Ardrey Kell. In his pre-game talk to his players, Gray portrayed his club as a bunch of regular blue-collar guys going against the Charlotte elite.
It motivated us a little bit more. We knew most of their students had a lot more money than we did.
Julius Barnes on Garner’s state title basketball victory over Charlotte Kell
He didn’t quote the numbers, but the coach painted a picture of two different schools. Only 13 percent of the Kell students received free or reduced-price meals in 2013-14 compared with almost half (47 percent) of the Garner students.
“It motivated us a little bit more,” said Julius Barnes, the MVP of the Trojans’ victory. “We knew most of their students had a lot more money than we did.”
Gray said the title game would be a chance for the scrappy underdog to come out on top. That time they did.
But Gray said he can see that the demographics in basketball and football are different than in some other sports. “I was with some other high school basketball coaches, and we were talking about hoping that our players are getting something to eat this summer when school is out and school lunches aren’t available,” Gray said. “I don’t think golf coaches have that same discussion.”
We were talking about hoping that our players are getting something to eat this summer when school is out and school lunches aren’t available. I don’t think golf coaches have that same discussion.
Eddie Gray, boys basketball coach at Garner Magnet High School
Financial need is less of an obstacle to success in football, basketball and track, which are less expensive to play and where a few players can have large impacts on results.
Thomasville, which has the state’s most needy program using the NCHSAA formula, has won 12 state titles, including four in football, four in girls basketball, and three in boys basketball. The school competes in softball, volleyball and swimming, but did not win any titles in those sports during the period studied.
Seven of the nine schools with multiple titles in boys basketball during the period studied had free and reduced-price meal percentages above 40 percent. Six of the 10 schools that won three or more football titles were above 40 percent.
Though club basketball and track programs can be expensive, they operate with far fewer players than many other sports. The top basketball players sometimes receive financial assistance from their club teams to enable them to travel.
Off-season football club teams are rare, although there has been an increase in the number of off-season competitions, such as 7-on-7 tournaments. Some players hire private trainers, but private trainers are not widespread.
Garner’s Barnes, the 4A basketball MVP and a football letterman, said football and basketball were the perfect sports for him. “I love basketball,” he said. “You can just go outside and shoot.”
In some cases, schools with a high percentage of needy students don’t even try to compete in the country club sports. Bertie County, where 89 percent of the high school students were classified as needy, doesn’t field tennis, golf, soccer and swimming teams. The Falcons have 11 varsity sports.
“We’re basically the basic,” said Randy Whitaker, a Bertie graduate who returned 26 years ago to join the athletic program. “Football, basketball, baseball.”
Breaking even financially is a challenge for the school’s athletic program. “We have great fan support, but we don’t have much corporate support,” Whitaker said. “There aren’t many corporations in Bertie County.”
The facilities aren’t the best, Whitaker said. All of the track team’s competitions are on the road.
“A lot of places have better facilities,” he said. “But we do the best we can. We don’t have much, but we’re proud of what we have.”
Staff writer J. Mike Blake contributed to this report.
Less aid, more titles
The NCHSAA’s 2013-14 Wells Fargo Cup competition, which awards points to schools for teams that advance in state playoff competition, illustrates the dominance of schools with lower free and reduced-price meal rates and of non-traditional schools.
Among the Wells Fargo Cup leaders were:
4A champ Green Hope (7.1 percent free and reduced) and runner-up Apex (10.3); 3A champ Marvin Ridge (3.4) and runner-up Gibbons (which is a parochial school and does not make its percentage available).
The 2A champ was Carrboro (21.3) and Kernersville Bishop McGuinness, like Gibbons a parochial non-boarding school, was the runaway winner in 1A.
The top 10 in the Wells Fargo Cup in 4A each had a free and reduced-price meal percentage of 40 or less, with four schools having less than 18 percent. In 3A, only No. 10 Wilson Hunt (51.3 percent) was close to the state average.