Rocky Hulne: Make youth sports fun again

Published 5:09 pm Friday, July 14, 2023

Of all of the movies that document the purity of sports, “Field of Dreams” has a lot of the bases covered.

While the script is far from perfect, and even a little weird at times, it is based around a son’s love of the game and his desire to study its history, eventually centering on his need to “have a catch” with his late father.

So I was a little disappointed when I found out that the original Field of Dreams site in Dyersville, Iowa has now become a part of an ever growing issue in youth sports. The diamond that was once surrounded by corn fields will now have an $80 million dollar make-over that will include new diamonds, a youth player dorm and a brand new hotel.

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The new complex, which will also include a concert amphitheater and an RV park, is set to open in 2025, and I’m sure youth baseball coaches from across the nation will be lining up to spend the hard earned money of families to play on a diamond next to an old movie set.

Maybe I’m just getting older, but the money that is creeping into youth sports is wearing me out. I touched on the issue when I wrote my first novel “Blessed with a Curse,” in 2015, and I could probably write another book based completely on the subject today.

Besides expensive trips to expensive facilities that are no better than many local options, there are AAU basketball teams that charge up to $4,000, travel baseball teams that charge up to $2,500 and travel hockey teams that cost up to $3,000 annually.

These teams are being formed at younger and younger ages, and it probably won’t be much longer before we have a toddler league that has lowered hoops and a $500 sign-up fee.

The frustrating thing for me isn’t so much the money that is spent on these leagues. After all, this is America and we have the freedom to spend our cash on whatever we feel like.

The problem is the expectation it puts on athletes and parents, who feel the investment of putting their 10-year old through the rigors of a three-sport summer traveling schedule guarantees a future athletic scholarship. 

The result of these expectations is inevitable. The athletes who lack the abilities or focus to play at the next level find themselves slipping through the cracks as they reach the junior high and high school levels and it isn’t long before the wrath of an angry parent is falling on a coach, who gets paid very little for a major time investment.

The cycle presents a hard truth to our society. No matter how hard a kid works, or how much time they put into the offseason, it is still going to be highly unlikely to achieve a Division I athletic scholarship.

In my 16 years at the Herald, I have seen around 10 athletes in our area go onto play at the Division I level and most of them were phenomenal at every athletic feat they attempted from the first day they arrived on the varsity scene.

There have also been some close calls who went on to have successful Division II athletic spurts, but even those are few and far between.

The bottom line is that it is extremely difficult to land an athletic scholarship and eventually every athlete at every level has somebody, whether it be a coach, a general manager, or a general lack of recruiting interest, tell them that they are done playing. It’s rare that an athlete gets to stop competing on his or her own terms.

That is why the high school level of sports are so important and they should be enjoyed for what they are — a rare opportunity to make life lasting friendships while competing together for the same cause. Focus on that, not money or scholarship opportunities, and youth sports can be golden again.