Even upon first encounter, Jamie Barnhill, with his warm smile and sandy blond hair, seems like the kind of guy who would be good with kids. In fact, he teaches kindergarten at Forest View Elementary School in Durham.
Jamie Barnhill’s son, Cole, has the same sandy blond hair as he does. A senior at Riverside High School in Durham, he’s run cross country and track all four years.
Many of Cole’s teammates attend summer camps to boost their skills. For the Barnhills, though, paying for elite sports camps on the combined income of their public-teacher salaries has been a struggle.
After saving up, Jamie Barnhill and his wife were able to pay for Cole to go to one of those camps, but at $500 a pop, sending him to camp all four years of high school — like some of the runners at Riverside and many at other schools are able to do — was out of the question.
In the cross country and track circuits, Barnhill said, the financial resources kids have access to from school to school make a visible difference in competition.
On teams at elite and high-performing schools like East Chapel Hill, Cardinal Gibbons and Jordan, Barnhill said, almost the entire team will attend expensive, weeklong cross country training camps.
“You think, ‘Oh, OK, cross country: you only have to have running shoes,’” Barnhill said. “But the elite teams — East Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, Jordan High School, Cardinal Gibbons — those programs have more affluent students and families that have access to that advanced instruction.”
The cost of creating a highly competitive player and team is so high that even with coaches and booster clubs helping raise money at lower-income schools like Riverside, sports that were once anybody’s game are now barely accessible to kids whose parents can’t pay for the extras.
Struggling for finances
At the start of the cross country season this year at Riverside, there was an unexpected hiccup — a policy change meant the coach didn’t have the right license to drive the team’s bus to its weekend meets in other towns.
That meant the burden was on parents to get their kids to the meets, which could be up to an hour drive away. Some parents, including the Barnhills, had the time, money and transportation to do that, but for parents who didn’t, there were few options.
In the end, a third of the team, including one of its best varsity runners, had to quit.
Todd Patton, president of Riverside’s booster club, said scraping together enough money to fund requests from all the school’s sports teams is a challenge because the budget for athletics, provided by Durham Public Schools, gets stretched thin quickly.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” he said.
Riverside’s booster club began summer of 2015 with $15,000. Just a few months into the school year, filling requests for teams brought that budget down to $5,000.
Durham Public Schools, Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools all deal with the limits of public funding when budgeting for their sports teams. Most schools rely on their booster clubs to fundraise for sports, and when that’s not enough, coaches often pay out of pocket, or kids like the cross country runners at Riverside decide to quit.
Financial barriers take a toll on racial, as well as socio-economic, diversity.
“Cross country is — in simple terms, it’s a really white sport,” Barnhill said.
When the cross country team at Riverside lost its bus access, Barnhill said, it also lost many of its nonwhite runners.
“It affects the amount of diversity the students experience intimately,” Barnhill said. “Sitting in class is one thing, but when you practice several hours a week and travel to meets, the competition bonds people and brings people together.”
‘Where the money goes’
In July, the News & Observer published an investigation that revealed schools with fewer students receiving free or reduced lunch were more likely to win athletic championships, except in track, football and basketball.
Chapel Hill High School Booster Club President Susan Shareshian said different sports require different levels of investment.
For many parents, the high costs often begin when their children are in elementary or middle school. It’s the only way to ensure they’ll be able to compete at the high school level.
“Some sports just don’t cater to kids from less affluent backgrounds,” she said. “You see that in club-type sports, like soccer and baseball specifically. At Chapel Hill, if you don’t play year-round or play club baseball, there’s no chance of you making the team.”
Triangle United, a premier soccer club in Chapel Hill, costs between $1,295 and $1,695 per season. Membership at ITS Baseball, a baseball training club, requires a $60 evaluation fee and $150 per year plus costs for individual lessons and camps. Chapel Hill Lacrosse Club costs $80 annually for junior members, and since many schools don’t offer lacrosse equipment, parents can end up paying hundreds for sticks, helmets and padding.
This sports culture is a relatively recent development, said Nathan Tymann, treasurer of the Chapel Hill High School booster club.
“It’s funny — I used to be a high school and college athlete. For us, the hardship was doing stuff for the school teams because the school’s season was the season everyone cared about,” he said.
“Now, most kids who are good enough to make varsity at Chapel Hill High already invest much more money to play for the clubs, travel and take private lessons to get an edge up on everyone else. I think that’s where the money goes.”
Covering the difference
Tiwana Adams’ sons Jalen and Frank, who attend Riverside, play four sports between the two of them: football, basketball, track and wrestling. When her youngest son, Jalen, was an eighth grader at Brogden Middle School, some of his classmates wanted to play lacrosse and tried to put together a team.
But with no money from the school, some of the kids didn’t have the funds to get the equipment they needed. One boy’s parents were able to borrow equipment from another school, but in all, the team only played one game all season.
Adams, who is a board member on the Riverside High School booster club, said supporting a kid who wants to play a more expensive sport, such as football, lacrosse, soccer or baseball, is a hefty responsibility for any parent.
“I easily pay $500 a year for my older son — for football gear, for spirit wear they ask them to buy, for uniforms. It’s costly to be on the team,” she said.
Frank’s football team provides meals to its players each week, which parents plan and prepare. She said when some parents can’t afford to provide a meal, other parents must pitch in to make up the difference.
“They’re not going to turn away any student from eating, so parents step up — who have already paid — to make more meals, or coaches pay out of their pockets,” she said. “It creates an uncomfortable feeling between teammates.”
Gregory Bethea, president of the booster club at Hillside High School in Durham, said teams also lean heavily on the parents who are able to be most involved in the booster club.
“It’s like church — you’ve got 20 percent of the people doing 80 percent of the work,” he said.
Riverside’s booster club, Patton said, does its best to fill the gap between student athletes’ needs and available public funds.
“We try to meet the needs of the teams, but we still have a couple teams wearing uniforms that are six or eight years old, and we don’t have the resources right now to help them out,” Patton said.
The school has to compete with costly private schools such as Cardinal Gibbons. Students at the school, which was just added to Riverside’s conference this year, have the resources to go to camps and play club soccer and club lacrosse, Patton said.
A Christian school, Cardinal Gibbons costs $10,140 in tuition per year for Catholic families and $14,200 per year for unaffiliated families. Its campus sprawls across several acres of green, manicured lawn and modern landscaping, complete with a full-size football stadium.
At Riverside, on the other hand, broken hurdles sit haphazardly beneath the stadium bleachers because there’s no storage space to hold them.
The track team’s high jump and pole vault equipment was left out so long under the bleachers that it rotted. Despite the school having owned the equipment since it was founded 20 years ago, there’s not enough money in the budget to replace it.
That means the track team can’t perform high jump or pole vault events, so the kids forfeit those points at every meet.
It’s hard to compete with the high price tag of winning.