Ten years ago, Bruce Cook made the hard decision to have his son Ryan repeat the sixth grade. Lots of people, mostly other parents, told Bruce it was the right thing to do—that in the long run, repeating the grade was best for Ryan, even though he was getting straight A's.
"We were horrified," said Cook. "Our son was already the smartest, tallest and most physically mature kid in the sixth grade. We felt it would be detrimental to hold him back because classes wouldn't be challenging enough if he repeated the grade."
"Sure, he's doing well now," the other parents told him, "but if he's this good at this age, imagine how much better he'd be in high school with an extra year of maturity and development on all the other kids in his grade. He'd be a 16-year-old sophomore, performing with an extra year under his belt, and the quicker a kid starts to perform at a high level, the quicker they catch the eye of a college scout."
Soon, Cook says, the whole thing started to make sense.
"Why not?" he said. "There's no harm and it's probably a good thing for a male, who often is not as mature mentally, socially or physically as a female. Anyways, what does a year matter?"
So Bruce Cook transferred Ryan to Carden Hall, a private middle school in Newport Beach, where he believed there'd at least be a different curriculum so that young Ryan wouldn't be left with the shame of being The Kid Who Had to Repeat Sixth Grade. Ryan played basketball and, with an extra year of growth and maturity over the other kids in his class, dominated the court. His Carden Hall team won every game.
When it came time for high school he went to Mater Dei to play basketball and then transferred his sophomore year to Newport Harbor High, where water polo was his sport of choice. As a sophomore he was already playing a significant role on what has traditionally been one of the nation's top prep water polo teams. He went on to become one of the country's standout players, helping his team win a section title and earning a scholarship to USC.
Holding Ryan back, Cook says, "was all very positive."
And, for all of you clucking your tongues and wagging your fingers, it was all very legal, too. It was legal when Bruce Cook did it and it's legal today under the rules of the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), mainly because the CIF has precious few rules governing age eligibility in sports. There is, in fact, just one rule regarding age: a student athlete cannot turn 19 before June 15. Though other states have specific rules about redshirting a child—that is, holding him back for athletic purposes—California has none because CIF officials don't see it as a big problem.
No problem? That's news to the private middle schools that are a haven for redshirting kids. This past year, the Parochial Athletic League (PAL) established rules to curtail the practice by limiting athletic eligibility in middle school. Russ Smith, PAL director, said his member schools "don't want to become known as a feeder grounds. We want parents to know they can't do it [hold kids back] in private school."
Despite that, parents complain that the practice is becoming more common. One South County parent, who asked that his name not be used, is threatening to have his congressman look into the practice.
"Ridiculous," said one parent. "A grown man can play high school sports."
Cook says it's not ridiculous at all, but just the way the game has come to be played.
"To those parents who say what I did is unfair, I say tough. Life's not fair. You have to play the game to win. If you want the same advantage, I say hold your kid back, too."
And apparently, more parents—obsessed with making their child a star so as to nab a college athletic scholarship—agree. There are no numbers on the practice, no growth charts, but parents of student athletes say it's as plain as the talk in the stands. Joe Nedza, an Orange County deputy district attorney whose son was a sophomore at Mater Dei, said it's common knowledge among the parents he talks to.
"When I would sit in the stands watching my son's football games, you would hear parents talk about it," Nedza said. "They'd say, 'So-and-so kept their kid back to be more mature so they can get a scholarship.' "
Gary McKnight, Mater Dei athletic director and boys varsity basketball coach, said: ""I think it's [kids being held back] at all high schools. As far as I know, parents are holding their kids back, but CIF has rules. Once you start high school you have four years. We follow the CIF rules. Call them if you have any questions. But I haven't heard of any parents doing this at Mater Dei."
But Nedza says the practice is clear. "Everyone wants a scholarship," he said, "and parents are stopping at nothing."
Including taking advantage of the lack of any age rules and holding their kids back a year during the crucial growth years from 11 to 14. And with college scouts making many of their decisions by the end of a child's junior year of high school, the pressure is even greater for a student athlete to be noticed early on in school and have big sophomore and junior years, when standouts are identified, pursued and rewarded.
"If staying back is more of an opportunity, you'd stay back," said Jennifer Noonan, president of College Athletic Recruiting, a Newport Beach company that matches high school athletes with scholarships. "The problem in Orange County is pressure for the young athlete to perform at a high level early on because we have the best athlete markets for colleges in the nation. The child needs to compete at the highest level."
"The competition is so fierce today. I can see how easy it would be to go postal," said Brad Rawlins, a parent and football booster's board member at Corona del Mar High. "It starts in Newport Beach, instilled by hard-driven, successful parents."
Hard-driven? Bruce Cook not only reveres success, he was one of the people who helped create and produce its video showcase, a little something called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Today he's the editor and publisher of Grand Tour Real Estate Magazine. He has an office at the Balboa Bay Club—overlooking the multimillion-dollar yachts below—where he also edits The Bay Window, the club's exclusive magazine. Under the byline B.W. Cook, he's also the longtime society columnist for the Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot. Cook lives and moves in exclusive Orange County circles where multimillion-dollar houses are common and the Holy Grail is a full-ride college athletic scholarship in a county that worships education and accomplishment, and not necessarily in that order.
College athletic scholarships are so highly prized that parents many times spend far more in pursuit of the scholarship—on personal coaches, athletic camps, club teams, equipment—than the scholarship is actually worth in cash. Of course, the value of a scholarship is measured not only in dollars but also in status, in being the parent other parents point to in gymnasiums or at barbecues. Over years, a hard-driven parent could spend what it would cost to send several kids to college to get just one scholarship. Cook knows this and makes no apologies. This is not fun and games, he says. This is sports.
"My son definitely benefited from the extra year of growth and maturity," he said. "In the real world, age makes no difference and there is no such thing as a level playing field. If you want to win, you must play the game, which means you must devote your entire life to the sport. There are no vacations, no holidays. You must be ready for five days a week of practice year-round. There's no 'let's have fun.'"
But if a kid is held back for reasons of sports performance only, is he doing so at the expense of a kid who is, how shall we put it, right where he ought to be age-wise? Last year, Joe Nedza's son was a freshman on the Mater Dei freshman football team. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Nedza's son wasn't close to being the biggest on a team with several kids in the 240- to 250-pound range.
"It's kind of funny," he said. "They put the little ones in as a group when there is no chance of losing. It's rare they played with the big guys, the older ones."
What's also kind of funny is that while Nedza's son wasn't the biggest as a freshman, he was one of the oldest at 15. Nedza held his son back from preschool so he would be older and more mature. His son will be one month short of 19 when he graduates.
California did not invent redshirting. It's a well-known phenomenon in states crazy for high school sports, especially football. The award-winning Go, Tigers! documents football-obsessed Massillon, Ohio, featuring a segment in which parents and kids talk openly about holding boys back to improve their—and the town's—football fortunes.
But athletic associations in other states have actually dealt with redshirting. In the mid-1990s, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) came up with age guidelines after it learned that a state basketball championship game had been played with five kids on one team and seven on the other who had repeated a grade in middle school.
"Our concern was that many students were doing it to advance in high school sports—and it wasn't just at the private schools, but at the public, too," said TSSAA assistant executive director Gene Beck.
In order to stop the practice, TSSAA declares ineligible for one year any freshman who repeated sixth, seventh or eighth grade. Beck says a lot of students who repeat those grades have legitimate reasons—academic trouble or lack of emotional maturity, for instance. But the rule applies to them as well. "We try to make a level playing field," Beck said.
CIF southern section commissioner James T. Staunton said it isn't fair to compare a small state like Tennessee to California. After all, Southern California contains more high schools than all of Tennessee.
OK, then, is Texas big enough for you? Texas implemented strict age and eligibility rules some 20 years ago. The state did so after it was revealed that the parents of an entire seventh-grade class had held their kids back for sports.
"This is what redshirting is all about," said Charles Breithaupt, director of athletics of the Texas University Interscholastic League. "That [older] child is taking someone else's place."
The PAL's solution was to limit seventh- and eighth-grade kids to just two years of eligibility. If a child repeats either one of those grades, he or she isn't granted an additional year of athletic eligibility.
"It's a huge growth period for boys, in the eighth and ninth grade, and parents are doing it for athletic gain, not academic," said the PAL's Russ Smith. "I've heard of it so often and finally found a way to stop it all together by going cold turkey. If a child does legitimately need to repeat, they should be spending time in the academic field, not on the athletic field."
And the CIF? Staunton says there are no formal investigations of redshirting or any proposals to limit the practice at this time. "The only thing I have received about this matter recently is one letter from one parent in the Capistrano Unified School District," he said. "Tom White, the athletic director of that area, forwarded the rules and bylaws back to the parent."
And it may be the CIF's attitude that inhibits parents from coming forward with their complaints. If you're wondering why you haven't read or heard more stories about this practice, it could be because parents are afraid, in Cook's words, "of being blackballed." He says reporters have talked to him over the past few years about redshirting but never wrote stories because "angry" parents were afraid to talk for fear that coaches would bench their kids—or, worse, send them to the JV team.
"Try to get one of those parents who say it's unfair to go on the record. You won't be able to," Cook said. He recalled a San Diego radio talk show host who intended to discuss the subject a few years ago—and then cancelled when he couldn't persuade an upset parent to go on the air. The woman scheduled to be interviewed backed down after her child panicked that she would be ostracized by coaches and teammates.
You can understand a parent's reticence. Competition to make varsity sports teams, especially in a prep hotbed like Orange County, is fierce. Dan, who asked that his real name not be used, has a high school-aged son who plays several sports, but doesn't enjoy them because he competes against so many older kids. At the moment, his son is one of 60 kids competing for only 10 spots on a freshman basketball team. By his son's sophomore year, incoming freshman and transfer students will try out for 10 positions, and then more incoming freshmen and sophomores compete for 10 junior varsity spots. Competition peaks for the varsity team, with three classes below competing for the 10 to 12 available spots—or fewer, if only a few seniors have graduated.
"It isn't fair that a 15-year-old sophomore should be competing against kids in his grade who are a year older for spots on a sophomore team where they should be trying out for the varsity team against the 16- to 18-year-olds," complains Dan.
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Through elementary and middle school, Dan's son was slightly above average in height and weight, and that seemed to help him excel at every sport he attempted. "In high school, he's still considered a very good player compared to kids his own age, but not great with the taller, faster, older kids." He said his son has gone from being an enthusiastic player who plays most of the game to a humble benchwarmer watching older kids play.
"Something is wrong with the picture when I drive my 15-year-old son to practice and other teammates are driving themselves."
Ryan Cook, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is a junior at USC—proof positive, Bruce says, of the advantages of holding a kid back. Ryan had wanted to attend UCLA but Bruce pushed him toward his alma mater. Ryan played as a freshman but had difficulties adjusting and, Bruce said, took "a break from sports."
He says he doesn't regret holding Ryan back and still believes it was the right thing to do. Still, while hopeful his son will someday compete again for USC, he wonders "if I did the right thing by putting so much pressure on him."