ARGABRIGHT: Is There Anything That Money Doesn’t Ruin?

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FISHERS, Ind. — A front-page story in the Sports section of the Indianapolis Star this past Sunday caught my eye, and within a few paragraphs I recognized a very familiar theme.

The story described how the “rules” have changed in the world of high school sports. A detailed study revealed that high school athletes and their parents are today spending significant amounts of money in order to excel at their chosen sport.

Boys’ basketball? $1,550 per year, on average. Football? $2,700. Baseball? An amazing figure of $7,750 per year. The list was topped by boys’ golf, where participants reported they had spent an average of $15,900 per year to participate on the school team.

As schools face growing budget challenges, many have begun charging participants a “pay to play” fee, which covers basic elements such as uniforms and transportation. However, that’s apparently small change; the real money is being spent on extensive year-round training and coaching, including things such as a nutritionist and a personal fitness instructor.

My first thought was this: Is there anything in this world that money doesn’t ruin? Alas, the answer to that question is a resounding no.

The parallel to our modern racing scene is obvious and clear. Today, racers typically spend a thousand dollars to make a hundred. Why? Because personal pride and the spirit of competition easily overwhelm our sense of reason.

Winning is everything. And we’ll spend our last dollar to achieve it.

As I read the story, I wondered something: Are these kids having more fun than the paupers of a few years ago, when one needed only show up with gym shoes and gumption to try out for the school basketball team?

I wonder how much the boys on the Milan team paid for “personal instruction” when they captured the hearts of America in 1954 as the tiny team that won the Indiana state basketball tournament? (The “Hoosiers” film was based on this team.)

There is, of course, a grave danger to this scenario, just as our sport wrestles with the reality that money can control the outcome of every race.

The story outlined how single moms struggle to pay the expenses now required for their child to compete at the high school level. It isn’t difficult to realize that a number of kids will be missing out on the joys — and the tangible benefits — of athletics simply because their parents don’t have the resources to provide the “tools” required to maintain competitiveness at that level.

The rationale for parents is simple: They justify the expense by reasoning that if their kid can land a college scholarship, it’s money well invested. But you’re up against the numbers with that line of thinking, because inevitably the vast majority of kids will fall short and there will be no revenue at the other end to offset the expenses.

But it isn’t difficult to see what is happening here, and we — those of us close to racing — have seen it all before. Parents will typically do whatever it takes to help their child succeed, and one can easily envision a growing legion of companies who are willing and ready to sell them the specialized “tools” to do so.

As the stakes rise, so will the amount charged. Why? Because they can. And will.

Just like racing: If you want to win, you’ve got to have my gadget. Never mind that the cost of all the gadgets is vastly more than you could ever win back.

Winning. It’s a powerful human desire, and it consumes us. And the ante is rising all the time.

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Dave Argabright
Dave Argabright has been a feature writer specializing in motorsports and automobiles since 1980. His work has been featured in a number of motorsports magazines, including SPEED SPORT Magazine.