Quick: what do Steph Curry, Jordan Spieth, Chipper Jones, and Russell Wilson have in common? Add to that Lisa Fernandez, Kerri Walsh, and Mia Hamm?
Yes, they certainly are/were some of the top athletes in their sport. But look closer… See anything else they have in common (hint: think Allen Academy)? Yes! All of them graduated from private schools!
Regardless of where I’ve been, in different states, regions, or sizes of independent schools, there’s a myth out there that needs dispelling. Students from our schools can and do regularly continue their athletic careers at the next level. I’ve personally seen it hundreds of times for nearly every sport I can think of that is offered at the NCAA level.
First, it is important to acknowledge that the landscape of high school sports has shifted dramatically over the past 15 years. It absolutely used to be that where you played high school mattered – and it mattered a lot. While the level of high school game competition may still matter at some level, the reality is that it has become significantly less and less.
So why is that?
Look around at any middle or high school game in our country for pretty much any sport. There is a video recording of everything these days. Coaches see and share videos of athletes thousands of miles away. Eager parents send videos to prospective coaches hoping their child can be among the two (2) percent who continue playing sports at the next level. And of course, student athletes send their video resumes in hopes of fulfilling dreams of playing collegiately.
In addition to video footage, there are now significantly more summer and off-season camps and showcases, and the proliferation of club and select teams for every sport (with the exception of football) have made it simply the way it is.
If anything, I see this as a positive for private school parents and student athletes. No longer do you have to sacrifice something for something else (other than maybe some additional cash to play on a select team and all the fees therein). In other words, students can still get the academic rigor, the small class sizes and individual attention, and the incredible preparation for college and beyond that a private school offers… PLUS the opportunity to play the sport they love. Similarly, some of the best college and pro athletes who attended private schools often reference the opportunity to have played multiple sports in high school, rather than having to specialize early in their adolescence.
Don’t believe it? How about this:
College Station is a town with one of the top 25 collegiate Division-I athletic programs in the country. Let’s look at their varsity programs. A quick peek will show you that on both the men’s and women’s side, there are private/independent school students on 16 of 18 teams rosters. Whether you are an Aggie, a casual fan of Texas A&M, or even if the sight of maroon disgusts you, it’s hard to dispute that playing on an Aggie team is an honor, a privilege, and a significant accomplishment.
Don’t like that sample? How about some recent NCAA Division-I championship-caliber teams? Alabama football: 17 players on their roster are private school graduates. Current #1 in men’s basketball (University of Virginia) has 4. You think UVA is a fluke this year? Ok, what about basketball powerhouse UNC? Good question. Turns out 11 of 17 on their current roster are private/independent school alums. Florida Gators baseball? 4. Nebraska women’s volleyball? 2. UConn women’s hoops? 5. OU softball? 2.
So what are you saying, Matt?
In the end, I frame this as a “both and…” rather than an “either or…”. Remember that universities recruit student-athletes… STUDENT-athletes. Say what you want about that rival college and how they let a certain type of student in, but the reality is that graduation rates are an important metric that the NCAA and all conferences at all levels take very seriously. Not only that, but the last thing any school wants is front-page headlines about academic improprieties/recruiting issues, subsequent stripping of national or conference titles, or worst of all: loss of scholarships.
Beyond the perennial colleges and universities associated with prowess in theirsport, Ivy League and Division III schools are even more intent on admitting fantastic students who have faced an academic rigor in their high school years because they know the ability to balance academics and practice is essential at their institution. Having coached at those levels myself, I can tell you that we always recruited kids from private and independent schools because we knew what experience they had in high school juggling the intensities on both sides of the proverbial court: academic and athletic.
To be clear, this memo isn’t an exposé on travel teams, where thousands of dollars per player are spent each season. After all, I have been a coach of those teams and they have great value for both players and for college coaches recruiting in their non-season times. Similarly, this isn’t about the college recruitment process itself, which I have also had the privilege of doing. Instead, it’s about the triple-threat kids that private schools help provide to our nation’s colleges and universities: students who have faced and conquered the challenges of private school academics, who have talent and hunger for the opportunity to compete athletically at a more intense level, and who are of great character because of the commitment private schools make to character development.