By Scott Schlaufman and David Fong
As Jarad Scott readied to enter his sophomore year of high school, he made a key decision regarding his athletic future.
After his freshman year at Lumberton (N.C.) High School, where he played basketball, soccer and football, he chose to transfer to nearby Flora MacDonald Academy, a private school that has a knack for churning out college basketball players.
“I knew I needed to focus on one sport and I knew that basketball had the most potential to me actually going somewhere,” Scott said.
For his final three years, he dropped the other sports and put his concentration solely on basketball. The payoff came when he signed to play Division I basketball at Winthrop University last spring, where his freshman season ended one win short of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
It was a decision that was admittedly a challenge for Scott and his parents.
Today, fewer student-athletes are playing multiple sports. Specialization has accelerated as students-athletes are steered toward one primary sport to avoid injury and a better opportunity at colleges scholarships and professional sports.
“With my boys, it was really hard in that they just loved sports, period,” said mother Sharon Scott. “If there’s a ball, they want to play it and to see them excel at it in practically every sport that they play, it’s hard to say to a child, ‘Well don’t pursue this.’ ”
The Scotts have seen both sides of the one-sport athlete debate.
Though Jarad took the single-sport route to a Division I college, his older and similarly-sized brother Jesse was a three-sport letter winner at Lumberton High who went on to play basketball at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a Division II school, and eventually tried his hand at arena football.
Both attempted to play basketball at the highest college level, but Sharon said it was easier with Jarad, simply because there weren’t any concerns about how time was split between sports.
“I found it to be a little more difficult in terms of marketing them to universities when he had three sports going on,” she said.
Former Robeson County (N.C.) AAU basketball coach Lamont Taylor said that with the modern sports structure, recruiting has gone beyond just the high school season. With athletes that play year-round on club teams and at camps, there can be a higher level of exposure in a specialized sport.
“Basketball has changed, the recruiting process has changed,” Taylor said. “It used to be just the high school coach and they had control and you’d call them, but it’s not like that anymore because players play basketball year-round; now you’re involved in AAU teams, travel teams, you’re talking about shoe companies. Everyone is involved in that process.”
Multi-sport athletes at the highest college levels are rare. Notables such as Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback/pitcher Jameis Winston and MLB/NFL legend Bo Jackson have excelled, but even at Division II schools such as UNCP, there are only a handful of athletes who compete at the varsity level in multiple sports.
Former Robeson County standout Laura Bird was among those who briefly considered pursuing multiple sports in college.
During her career at Purnell Swett High School she was a three-sport athlete who played volleyball, earned All-Conference honors in basketball and joined the golf team her junior year, quickly working her way up the state ranks.
She was recruited for both basketball and golf, but chose to limit herself to only golf when she attended UNCP, if only because of the effort it would have taken to maintain a high level of play at multiple sports while also maintaining her grades.
“It would have been awesome but something would have to give,” she said. “My studies would have to give, my body would have to give.”
Growing up in Robeson County, Bird said being a multi-sport athlete is simply part of the culture. She grew up playing baseball, then picked up basketball and later volleyball as high school approached.
“Whatever’s in season you’re either doing that or getting ready for the next season,” she said.
Her sister Jamee, a UNCP volleyball signee, followed a similar road, having recently finished her senior seasons in both volleyball and basketball.
Whether or not her three-sport status affected Laura’s college offers, she’s not sure. Her coach at UNCP was aware of her time on the court, but other coaches never gave a clear indication on their feelings.
“I wish I had known,” she said. “They didn’t really tell me.”
The upside, she said, was that her experience in other areas helped her transition to the college level. Where other golfers lacked cardio and strength, Bird came in well-rounded. Her skills on the court still are utilized, just in the pickup basketball games her golf team plays to keep in shape during the offseason.
“I definitely see as a college athlete how it benefits us,” she said.
DOES IT PAY OFF?
There is statistical data that proves athletes who specialize in one sport — particularly if done at a young age — do tend to have a better chance of earning a college scholarship. In 2005, a team of researchers from the University of Arizona released a study titled “A Study to Determine the Impact of Early Specialization on Athletic Success,” in which they interviewed current college athletes.
Of the athletes interviewed, 58 percent said specializing in one sport led to a college scholarship, while only 12 percent of athletes who did not specialize in a sport said they were able to obtain a college scholarship.
Still, however, some experts would argue that the chances of obtaining a college scholarship for any athlete — specialized or unspecialized — are remote at best. Gerry Gallo — a member of the University of Dayton’s School of Education and Health Sciences — said he often wonders if young athletes aren’t losing a portion of their childhood in an effort to gain an elusive college scholarship.
“Less than 1 percent of high school athletes will earn a college scholarship,” said Gallo, who was on campus as the University of Dayton men’s basketball team recently made a run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. “In today’s society, finances are obviously very important. A lot of parents will look at their son or daughter and think they are going to get a college scholarship. It’s great to have confidence in your kid — but you also have to be a realist. You have to have another plan if you kid isn’t going to be part of the 1 percent who gets a college scholarship.
Gallo wonders what happens to the kids who spend all their youth focused on sport.
“They’ve given up a pretty significant portion of their childhood; they could have had fun playing multiple sports, but gave that up to focus on one sport that never led to a college scholarship,” Gallo said.
Gallo’s assertion that few high school athletes will ever receiver a college scholarship — or go on to play professionally — is based on statistical data. Only 22 out of 1,000 girls (2. 2 percent) and 20 out of 1,000 boys (2.0 percent) who participated in a high school sport received a full or partial college scholarship in 1999 and 2000, according to Robert M. Malina of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, University of Texas at Austin.
The message is clear — while specializing in one sport does help an athlete’s chance of earning a college scholarship, that chance remains one in a million.
“The numbers are out there — but so many parents are brainwashed by the idea of their kid getting a college scholarship,” Gallo said.