Assessing value in cost of improvement is a tricky conversation in HS sports | Opinion

Feb. 27—Using meatloaf as symbolism might seem bizarre in this space, but hear me out:

Not long before and amid the pandemic, I could go to my local supermarket — implicating a specific chain doesn't seem fair, so we'll keep it generalized — and purchase a premade meatloaf without feeling guilty about it.

It could be used for dinners and sandwiches and could be had for less than $10.

Today, that same meatloaf costs $16, nearly double the price.

The conversations about stores and so-called "skimpflation" and profit margins aside — and are there ever conversations on which most of us can agree about gouging — the symbolism does strike a chord with the concept of value vs. necessity.

Just because something is a necessity doesn't mean it should carry an outrageous price tag.

We have a similar problem with high school sports when it comes to that concept, including some sports that can't get out of their own way with development because too many people are more concerned with their bank account than advancing the sport.

Earlier this year, I was watching a women's soccer panel show on CBS Sports Golazo about issues within development for the national side, emerging from some comments made in a podcast interview by retired USWNT star Carli Lloyd.

For better or for worse, Lloyd has a way of moving the needle when it comes to debate about women's soccer in this country. And as we've discussed previously, like it or not, it doesn't mean she's wrong or isn't entitled to her opinion as one of our country's most decorated players of all time.

One of the panelists on this show lamented, to Lloyd's point about the state of the national team system, how difficult it is for young players at the grassroots level to locate refinement, either because it falls outside their family's financial means or because it's too far away.

That point is spot on. Far too many potentially standout soccer players reach a roadblock not because they don't want to get better, but they can't within the framework of the system.

You "have" to play at certain clubs. You "have" to go to certain ID camps. You "have" to do this. You "have" to do that.

And don't get me started yet again on the idea of those who insist you "can't" or "shouldn't" play high school soccer in the fall. But that's part of it, too.

Of course players need to be willing to get better and operate within the basis of a regional or national system if they're at that level. But no one should be priced or arrogantly dismissed out of it, either.

That's a reckoning soccer needs to accept in this country. Unfortunately, in far too many circles, it's too entrenched in the psyche of the sport.

On a long-ago episode of the NBA TV series "Open Court" — an entertaining discussion panel among analysts about subjects surrounding the NBA and basketball in general — Steve Smith told the story of growing up in Detroit and being able to play two-on-two at a local youth camp with Isiah Thomas, who was also on the panel.

Smith, along with other panelists, made the point of how valuable it was for Thomas, one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, to take the time to teach youngsters the game and ways to get better without putting an exorbitant price tag on it.

Thomas concluded the segment, after listening to his fellow panelists, with the following wisdom:

"The history, and there's been slippage, as we continue to go from generation to generation," Thomas said. "I'll wrap it up and sum it up this way: The educators used to volunteer to be coaches, and they would teach life lessons."

Somewhere along the way, perhaps we have lost sight of the value of passing on those lessons vs. capitalizing on the necessity for it.

It's not to say specialists who refine skill shouldn't be paid for it. It's not to say stipends aren't, for most coaches, totally out of whack with the hours they devote to mentoring student-athletes.

But we also shouldn't be in a situation in which, in order to get better, it needs to always require dollar signs. It doesn't always need to be organized to the extent of something with high cost.

I've lamented this before. But how often do we all drive past an old ball field or public basketball court and see no sign of activity? How often do we see pickup soccer in the United States, when many countries are better in part because of their background in unorganized so-called "street futbol"?

How often is the message conveyed that, in order to get better, you have to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for it?

How often is it implied that the best of the best won't show up back home to impart what they've learned unless it's profitable?

And in turn, how much do the high school student-athletes of today suffer as a result?

Imagine if, like the example from "Open Court" with Thomas in the Detroit area at the height of his legendary days with the Pistons, pro or college athletes made themselves available back home to the next generation.

Not just for a once-a-year camp with sponsors and media circling. Not just when begged.

But as a resource just a little more frequently when their free time allows for it, away from the glare of the spotlight.

The impressionable could be so well served by them taking a few minutes, without a price on it, and imparting insight on how to get better and how to potentially aspire for the same places they've reached.

Paraphrasing from that "Open Court" segment, Chris Webber stated the symbolism of Thomas, the "most important man in Detroit," having time and motivation to make time for the youth of the city.

Just because something has necessity doesn't mean in every instance it should be exploited for profit.

With development. With improvement. And yes, even with meatloaf.