Feb 3, 2011
During the 2009-2010 school year, Wake County Public Schools was home to 38,072 high school students. About 40 percent of them participated in at least one sport.
That number could be lower next school year if WCPSS moves to a pay-to-play policy for high school athletes.
"That's something we're starting to hear a little about," Enloe High School football coach Ron Clark said. "It's definitely a a concern."
The term "pay-to-play" is one that many in athletics are concerned about. Pay-to-play policies around the country require student-athletes to pay fees in order to participate in athletics.
Over the last several weeks, the Wake County Board of Education has asked the public to submit suggestions of how to deal with the projected $100 million budget shortfall next year.
"That calls for some extraordinary measures, and I know that won't be popular," said board member Keith Sutton.
Among the suggestions: requiring a fee for students to participate in sports.
"You certainly hate to see anyone go to pay-to-play, but if one of the local districts has to do so, you certainly hope they do it as a last resort," N.C. High School Athletic Association commissioner Davis Whitfield said.
No formal pay-to-play proposal has been made in Wake County, but the thought of it is enough to make noise in the athletics community.
Gary Brannen has two sons who play basketball at Cary High School. "They love it," he said. "It is pretty much the focal point of their school."
Brannen said he believes being athletes makes his sons better students. If it came down to it, he would probably be willing to pay for his kids to play sports next year.
"We would probably make it work, but there are some kids out there who may not be able to make it work," Brannen said. "What about those kids?"
The kids whose families struggle to make ends meet are the ones who coaches and athletic directors are most concerned about.
"Those are the kids that need to be participating in athletics more than any others," said former NCHSAA executive director Charlie Adams. "I used to tell Governor [Jim] Hunt, athletics is the best dropout program the state has."
Studies done in the state of North Carolina show high school sports have a positive impact on student-athletes as a whole.
The most recent of two statewide studies on the impact of athletics on high school students was conducted by Gary Overton, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at East Carolina University, who found positive correlation between grade point average and participation in athletics.
The mean grade point average for student-athletes was a 2.98, while the mean grade point average for non-athletes was 2.17. He also found that athletes scored higher on End of Course tests in Algebra (8 percent) and English (11 percent) than those who didn't play sports.
In addition, Overton's study concluded that student-athletes missed fewer days of school, had fewer discipline referrals and had a significantly lower dropout rate. In fact, Overton's study found that the mean dropout rate for athletes was just 0.6 percent, compared to 10.32 percent for non-athletes.
Gary Powers, the athletic director at Southeast Raleigh High School, estimates that at least 25 percent of his athletes may not be able to play sports if a pay-to-play policy is put into place in Wake County.
"It would have a huge impact here," Powers said. "Our kids come from working-class families, and that's what I appreciate about them.
"How do I tell one of them they can't play because financially they cannot afford it? That bothers me more than anything else," he said.
Powers added that he didn't think many of them would be able to sacrifice a sum of money to participate in an extracurricular activity if the school system doesn't provide financial support.
The Wake County Public School System budget for 2010-11 allotted $914 to each of the 20 high schools for athletics. Any other money was raised from ticket sales and booster clubs.
According to Powers, Southeast Raleigh operates on a budget of about $100,000 per school year.
"It's a drop in the bucket," Powers said of the money from the central office.
The amount distributed to the schools was developed in the early 1980s to provide security at all home football games.
"You're lucky if that covers one or two games these days," said Powers. "To me, it's just not fair to ask someone to pay to do something that we preach is open to all, especially when it's not something that the county pays for anyway."
Since no official proposal has been made, there has been no discussion about the fees that athletes could be asked to play.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, which instituted pay-to-play in fall of 2010, charges high school athletes $100 and middle school athletes $50 for each season they play sports.
Even that may not be enough, said Jennifer Roberts, chairwoman of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners. With a continued budget deficit, the district may cut middle school sports altogether. "It is an ugly list, and it is an ugly budget year," she said.
Around the country, some student athletes pay less than $20, while others pay hundreds of dollars for public school sports.
"We're just in tough times, and we're going to have to make some tough decisions," Adams said. "Most people have never lived through times like these."
Even so, Powers hopes pay-to-play doesn't become a reality in Wake County.
"Athletics should be open to all and closed to none, and if we have to go to a pay-to-play system, I just think that closes it off to a lot of kids," he said.
Adams described a pay-to-play policy as one of his biggest concerns while he ran the NCHSAA. "I always felt like, if any child in North Carolina, if they were properly enrolled and attending any school, that was a public school, then they had the right to play athletics."