As the cost of playing school sports rises, fewer kids are turning out, but a new nonprofit aims to keep more athletes on the field.

Share story

A noisier hallway outside Sam Reed’s office might have made the freshman inside more comfortable. Instead, he found himself standing before the athletic director at Chief Sealth High School, answering a series of questions about his family’s income while a line of other students listened.

Welcome to the winter sports season at your local public high school.

Athletic abilities were the least of Reed’s concerns as he sorted through the pile of student paperwork, determining who had enough money to play for Chief Sealth High in West Seattle, and who would have to cobble together other means of paying for their time on the field. By the time senior Chris Rojo arrived, the file of would-be athletes seeking financial assistance was already an inch thick.

Last fall, Rojo, 18, had been picking pears in Yakima, a dropout doing his best to forget high school altogether. But the notion of redeeming his lackluster academic career continued to nag him, and Rojo thought the grade-point requirements of joining a wrestling team might keep him focused long enough to rebuild his life.

“What really drove me,” he said, “was the idea of a fresh start.”

That is hardly guaranteed. Rojo, who lives with relatives in South Park, receives a small amount of money from his parents in California to cover necessities. But there is little extra cash for wrestling shoes — let alone Seattle’s mandatory sports-participation charges.

For years these “pay-to-play” fees were negligible when they existed at all. But as Washington has absorbed $1.9 billion in cuts to education since 2009, administrators have begun to lean increasingly on parents to cover the cost of school athletics. In Seattle, that has meant doubling fees this year, from $50 to $100, per sport, though low-income students pay $25.

In the Lake Washington district, charges have nearly quadrupled since 2008 and stand at $275, a regional high.

Those figures may be of minimal concern to families who view academic education as a district’s primary task. But for many kids, athletics provide an avenue to college scholarships — not to mention lessons in leadership and discipline — and as fees mount, more and more students are walking away from the field.

“You can see it — the ones whose families are in hard times are just not coming out,” said Chris Kunzelman, a parent in the Kent School District, which charges $100 per sport, plus $30 for a mandatory student-activities card.

“If we’re making this all about the money then we’re not really doing what public education was designed to be — the same opportunity for every kid,” Kunzelman said.

There is no government regulation over pay-to-play fees — each district charges whatever it sees fit — and prices range widely. Where it costs $275 to play basketball for Redmond High School, students at Bothell pay $140. At Bellevue they pay $100, and in Renton, $75.

Most districts offer breaks, generally half-price, to low-income students. But families must apply for those waivers, and many would rather not go public with their finances.

“My mom said she thinks it should be free; she’d rather have the money for food,” said Jason Goree, 17, who plays basketball for Cleveland High School in Seattle.

Even in middle-class homes — such as those in Redmond, where a family with two athletically inclined children could pay more than $1,000 — parents are urging kids to set their sights lower and choose one sport instead of two or three.

“If we were charging $275 per sport, we probably would have half of our students out,” said Wendell Ellis, athletic director at Renton High School, where 65 percent of students are low-income.

Poor kids missing out

The relationship between mounting sports fees and declining participation is what keeps coaches at their desks, wrestling with lists and ledgers long after the final bell.

And while it may be too early to determine the ultimate fallout here, nationally the effects of pay-to-play have been chilling. A study of 558 Michigan high schools found that fees up to $100 caused a 10 percent decrease in the number of students coming out to play. Charges up to $200 precipitated a 20 percent decline.

“Essentially what it does is exclude poor kids,” said Dick Flanary, senior director for leadership programs at the National Association for Secondary School Principals in Washington, D.C. “We like to talk about a free public education. But that needs to mean something. There is no question that these fees affect participation, and they impact those kids that are the neediest.”

Indeed, after Lake Washington hiked its per-sport charge from $75 to $275, there was a 13 percent drop in participation. And that’s in one of the region’s more affluent districts. “This is a hard story, not one we’d like to be telling,” said Kathryn Reith, a district spokeswoman.

In Kent, where sports were free until last year, 182 fewer kids came out after the $100 fee went into effect. (Those who cannot afford to pay anything may work off their bills through community service, a spokesman noted.)

“It shouldn’t be this hard to play sports,” said Reed, the Chief Sealth athletic director, who sometimes makes informal arrangements with students he considers reliable, collecting a few dollars each week until their tab is paid. “How many kids never get onto the field because they see these fees? They take our packet, but it never comes back to my desk. It’s not like it used to be, where you just showed up with a pair of shoes on the first day of practice.”

The Washington Interscholastic Athletics Association neither tracks the impact of pay-to-play on participation, nor governs what districts charge, though Executive Director Mike Colbrese said he was concerned by the overall trend.

“Some people would argue that there’s now a class system within public schools,” he said. “But where do we get the dollars if we don’t do something like this?”

The activities bus or the math teacher?

A partial answer to that question has appeared in the gangly form of soccer referee Will Niccolls, a 31-year-old ex-White House staffer with near-electric energy for networking.

Unable to ignore the economic realities of poorer districts — where he has seen teams show up to matches wearing mismatched socks and jerseys from the 1980s — Niccolls two years ago founded Sports in Schools as a sort of regionwide booster club, plugging the gaps in everything from athletic fees to new tennis balls.

“We can spend however many billions on a tunnel, but we can’t let kids play basketball?” he asked, referring to Seattle’s much-debated waterfront construction project.

To date, Sports in Schools has raised about $75,000 and disbursed half of that to local coaches, Niccolls said. Neither he nor his board members draw a salary, and much of their impact has been in areas that go unrecognized:

When a sophomore in the Highline district had his tooth knocked out during basketball practice — and then informed school officials that he’d forged his father’s signature affirming medical insurance — Sports in Schools arranged to have the youth’s tooth fixed for free. (His forgery, however, resulted in a year’s suspension from play.)

When Danae Austin, 14, discovered that budget cuts had forced Highline to do away with its late-afternoon bus, she told Athletic Director Phil Willenbrock that she’d have to stop playing soccer.

“I was like, how do you expect me to get home?” the freshman asked.

No one could give her a ride after practice, and she had no money for public transportation. Her choices: walk several miles on dark streets or quit the team.

Again, Sports in Schools came to the rescue, buying bus passes to cover Danae for the season.

Catherine Carbone Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Highline district, echoed frustrated administrators around the region who bemoan raising fees or cutting transportation but see no other way to fund their programs.

“We’ve had to cut $18 million from our budget in the last three years,” she said. “When it comes down to: Is it the activity bus or the math teacher, what can you do?”

Rallying the community

Niccolls’ effort to address these problems is beginning to attract some impressive backers.

University of Washington basketball coach Lorenzo Romar and Seattle Seahawks running back Justin Forsett are supporters, as is a board of directors that includes financial types, college administrators and national-level athletes. One member is State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn.

“If you allow these fees to increase considerably over time, then it’s not a few outliers who are no longer able to participate, it’s half the team,” Fain said. “It’s a problem en masse and you’ve gone way beyond the line.”

Still, for all the optimism greeting Sports in Schools, Niccolls remains perplexed at what he sees as the lack of an organized response to waning programs. Already, Renton has cut its freshman-level “C” teams in basketball and football, and both Kent and Northshore have axed junior-high softball.

“There’s nobody who’s reacting to this because until now there’s been no threat,” Niccolls said. “But people need to know that athletic programs are being reduced. Sports just needs to hear the alarm bells going off.”

Freelance writer Claudia Rowe can be reached at