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Student athletes bank on rocky sports road to college scholarships

Many parents pressure their children to play their way into higher education, despite low odds of success

More than 7 million high school seniors are investing their time and energy in sports programs — many with the goal of earning themselves a rare college scholarship.

Gabrielle “Gabi” Redden, a 15-year-old basketball star from Hillsborough, New Jersey, sees the sport as her ticket to getting into at least one of her ideal colleges. “I want to get a full ride to one of the schools that I want to go to,” she said last year in “Sporting Dreams,” a documentary airing Sunday, Aug. 30, on Al Jazeera America. “I don’t want them to pick me. I want to pick them.”

The athletic teen, along with thousands of her peers, participates in the highly competitive Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament, with college representatives present to scout the young athletes years before they graduate from high school. Since 1988, when AAU was founded, some of the nation’s best athletes have competed in the AAU, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Brittney Griner. 

Of the more than 4.4 million high school boys who play varsity sports each year, only 7.6 percent of them end up competing in college. For the 3 million high school girls who play varsity sports during their senior year, almost 8 percent of them go on to play for their college.  

“When you are a basketball player trying to get a college scholarship, there’s a lot of pressure from your parents,” Angelique Grey, who played basketball for Florida State University in 2010, said of the pressures athletes face at a young age. Now a journalist for ESPN, she added, “Basically, you come out here, if you don’t play your hardest, then you’re off the list.”

The unfortunate reality for the 430,000 female high school basketball players is that almost none of them make the list. Only 1.2 percent will get to compete at a Division I school, 1.1 percent at a Division II school and 1.5 percent at a Division III school, according to Scholarship StatsFewer than 30,000 female high school basketball players, about 7 percent, ever play in college.

The path for boys is even more difficult, with only 32,000 of 541,000 high school basketball players making a college team.

“A college scholarship is really important to me because my family can’t pay for college,” Redden said. She may be one of the lucky ones, with numerous scouts showing interest in her.

But a scholarships won't necessarily relieve the parents of the entire college financial burden. The average cost of tuition is just over $31,000 at a private school and about $9,000 for state residents at public colleges, according to the College Board. Meanwhile, the average value of sports scholarships granted to female athletes is only $6,625, according to Scholarship Stats, with most scholarships only partly covering tuition.

Moreover, at many institutions, scholarships are renewed on an annual basis, thus not guaranteeing all four years of education will be covered.

The financial impact on parents, however, begins before the collegiate level. “The AAU season is an expensive endeavor,” said Selena Treat, Redden’s mom. “It’s a bit of a shock after I tally up all of my receipts for a trip.”

Treat's financial commitment in preparing Redden for collegiate and potentially for professional competition reflects a growing national trend of parents going the extra mile.

Operators in the sports coaching industry have grown at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent over the last five years, to a $6.1 billion industry, according to IBIS World.

There’s an overall change in approach to youth sports over the last two to three decades, warned Dan Gould, the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “We’ve seen the professionalization of youth sports,” CNBC reported Gould saying. “It used to be a neighborhood, local, informal thing. Now it’s modeled after what you see in professional leagues, with travel teams, more practices and younger kids specializing in just one sport.”

Michael Dabney, the father of Redden’s AAU teammate Olivia Dabney and WNBA star Maya Moore, hints at the pressure he puts on his younger daughter to reach her sister’s achievements. “The ultimate goal, obviously, is getting a scholarship,” he said. “In order to excel, you have to take those two or three hundred jump shots every day.”

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