Early recruitment for college sports takes toll on Colorado kids

DENVER -- High school sports can be stressful, but there's a hidden practice adding even more pressure on the playing field.

College athletics programs are recruiting kids earlier than ever.

Some Colorado students are being targeted in middle school.

"We're talking about these kids going to college before they've even gone to high school, and if that's not a broken system I don't know what is," said Sam Bartron the coach of Team 180, a girl's lacrosse club team in Denver.

Bartron has been coaching in the Denver area since 2001. She says recruiting has become more than a trend. It's a tradition.

Colleges that once targeted high school juniors began asking sophomores to commit. Then school started recruiting freshman. Now many programs are evaluating kids as young as 8th grade.

"It totally takes the fun out of it," said Bartron.

Early recruiting is taking a toll on many young players.

Megan Gordon started getting offers from college lacrosse teams shortly after starting high school.

Before her sophomore year she'd already committed not just to a college lacrosse team, but to five years in the military. She'll attend Navy after graduation next year.

"I questioned it a lot because it's a military school. It isn't just like a regular school. I committed so early which is kind of ridiculous. I'm making that decision for the rest of my life and of course there are going to be doubts," Gordon said.

Megan is excited and happy with her decision, but it's one that can be detrimental.

Brooke Pengel is the medical director of the Rocky Mountain Youth Sports Medicine Institute. She says early recruiting not only leads to anxiety and depression in many kids, it also results in more injuries.

"To get to that level the athletes are really required to put in certain days per week and certain hours per week and that's leading to overuse injuries we didn't use to see in kids," Pengel said.

There are recruiting rules to protect kids. The NCAA bars coaches from directly contacting kids before their junior year of high school. The problem is, there are loopholes. Colleges  often use club and high school coaches to reach students, coaches like Sam Bartron.

"You have to. There's nothing that sits right with me about the whole process. I feel like it's a broken system, but at the same time I feel like I'm not doing my job to help my players if I'm not a part of that process," she said.

Parents are also often sucked in, persuaded by promises of scholarships for their kids.

Doug Gordon hated seeing the pressure colleges were putting on his daughter, Megan, but he let her commit to Navy. Despite his concerns about the process, he admits there have been upsides.

"It's almost a bit of a carrot we can hold out as a family and say, hey it's not a guarantee you can get in. You have to get phenomenal grades, you have to be phenomenal on your ACT's and SAT's," said Gordon.

However, for many students that pressure is too much. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 70 percent of kids today drop out of organized sports by the time they turn 13.

That's right around the same time those recruiters are showing up in droves.

"We had one game where there was like 50 of them. Our entire sideline was completely covered," said Kaile Lammers, a player for Team 180 who will be attending the University of Denver on a lacrosse scholarship. "It kind of makes the game more stressful than fun because you have to do good when they're watching. You can't just play."

That is what worries coaches like Sam Bartron the most. A game that once put smiles on her player's faces is now a source of stress.

"We don't know if someone's going to get burnt out. We don't know if someone's going to get injured. We don't know if someone's going to maintain their grades," Bartron said.

Bartron says early recruiting is forcing kids to become adults before they're ready.

"It's a broken system. I mean, the pressure we're putting on these kids to not be able to develop as they are, we're pressing too hard for them not to be in middle school, and not high school, but to be college athletes," she said.

The NCAA has been reluctant to change recruiting rules, although women's lacrosse is making some headway. The NCAA will vote on a proposal next April that would eliminate the loopholes for that sport.