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PAINTER: Let’s not forget the benefits of high school sports

• Apr 8, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Many of us will be watching tonight’s NCAA basketball championship. As we watch the two finalists battle for the title, there is a debate raging over whether college athletes should be paid.

I recently watched an HBO documentary titled “Student-Athlete” that revealed hardships faced by unpaid college athletes. HBO profiled the stories of four athletes at different levels of their careers. A former professional and college coach, who has become an advocate, and a whistle-blowing former shoe representative were also profiled.

Featured are John Shoop, a former coach; Nick Richards, a high school phenom and University of Kentucky basketball player; Mike Shaw, who graduated and played basketball at Bradley University; Shamar Graves, a former wide receiver for Rutgers University; and Silas Nacita, a walk-on who played football for Baylor University.

The documentary is riveting. I won’t go into all of the details about the documentary in case you would like to see it. But it does seriously raise the question as to whether players should be paid, and how college athletes are exploited by colleges that pull in millions of dollars in revenues.

I was particularly interested in the profile of Nick Richards, a 6-11 sophomore at Kentucky. In high school, Richards was ranked the eighth-best high school basketball player in the nation. He received numerous scholarship offers before choosing Kentucky. He was also hounded by shoe companies to wear their shoes. Once he chose a shoe manufacturer, he wasn’t allowed to play in any other brand. He didn’t get paid by the shoe company, which essentially got free advertising. As it turned out, Richards, in his sophomore year, couldn’t crack Kentucky’s starting lineup and played just one minute in the team’s last game in the NCAA Tournament.

I know there are pros and cons to this debate. Some feel college athletes are getting exploited, while others feel a four-year scholarship to a major college is enough payment.

Shoop told HBO that he once asked his team if they would prefer having a state-of-art locker room or be paid. He said 100 percent said they preferred being paid.

What it has come down to is college basketball and football have been put on the national stage with numerous games on television, putting the spotlight on the most talented teams.

Many high school athletes who excel in sports look at college basketball or football as a ticket to the NBA or NFL. But, according to the HBO document, in 2017 only 303 of 91,775 college basketball and football players were drafted by professional teams. But that hasn’t stopped college recruiters from convincing high school athletes that they have what it takes to be a professional athlete. Some recruiters even break the rules.

Some major colleges recruit high school basketball players on the pretense that they can pursue a professional career after only one year in college. The NBA has a rule that you must be 19 years old to play in the league. There is a movement afoot to lower the age limit to play in the NBA. The NFL requires athletes to be out of high school for three years before they can play in the league.

While the focus is on major college and professional sports, the importance of high school sports shouldn’t take a back seat.

Yes, most high school athletes won’t have college recruiters knocking on their doors and offering them full-ride scholarships. Nor will they have companies offering them free athletic shoes.

Even so, there are plenty of benefits in participating in high school sports. Experts say that high school sports help in building our confidence, self-respect and leadership abilities. High school coaches can have a long-lasting positive influence on students.

This is true. For example, I have a high school friend, Don McKenna, who still regularly stays in touch with his high school football coach, Bob Mittlestat. Don and I graduated from high school 56 years ago.

While some might have you believe that gifted high school athletes should concentrate on just playing their best sport, many, including professional athletes, believe that it is more beneficial for high school athletes to play multiple sports.

One former Major League Baseball player is a strong advocate of playing multiple sports. At his Hall of Fame induction, former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz urged parents to let their kids play multiple sports. Good advice we should all keep in mind in these times of turbulence in sports.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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