There are some people who think summer vacation is a luxury we can’t afford these days. They tout the belief that if American children go to school 12 months, then maybe we can catch up with our foreign competition on the education front.
Personally, I think there are a lot of holes in that argument, but this is no forum to go into them. I do think, however, that the idea of the “lazy, hazy days of summer” is a myth, particularly to today’s high school athletes.
First, from a time perspective, summer has never been shorter. When I was a student in the early 1970s, we got out of school in May and started back the Tuesday after Labor Day in early September. Often, we played the first high school football game before school actually began. So summer lasted a full three months.
Now, school lets out at about the same time – or maybe a week or so later. But almost every school resumes for the fall in early to mid-August. So that denies today’s kids almost three full weeks of summer vacation that their parents once enjoyed.
But beyond sheer time spent, summers are shorter than ever. Ask your average high school varsity athlete – regardless of the sport – how he or she spent the summer. The odds are good that they spent most of June and July at sports camps, competing in summer leagues or playing travel ball, with only a week or two at the most allowed for time at the beach or the lake with family and friends. Then, by the time Aug. 1 rolls around, they’re busy getting ready to return to school.
And all that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, most high school athletes enjoy playing or practicing their favorite sport during the summer months. The point is, however, they have comparatively little “down time” in the summer, particularly compared to their parents.
“There is more demanded of them (high school athletes) than ever before,” said Robert Higginbotham, former football coach at Mountain Brook and Shades Valley. “Kids don’t get much of a summer anymore. There are so many things requiring their time now.”
The new phenomenon for high school football in the summer is the 7-on-7 tournament, where schools from all over the country gather on a high school campus for a sort of glorified flag-football championship. Players wear helmets but no pads. Blocking and tackling are not allowed.
The games originally started as just competition between local schools but have grown in importance over the years. For example, the recent National Select 7-on-7 Championships, presented by Under Armour, were hosted by Hoover and Spain Park and featured teams that came from as far away as Arkansas to compete.
The competition is interesting to watch from a spectator standpoint and gives coaches an early opportunity to see how their players react in something similar to real-game conditions. But it also shaves a couple of more weeks from an athlete’s free time during the summer.
Of course, football players know that late July is when they need to start getting their minds on the sport, as fall practice starts just a couple of weeks afterward. The early August practice schedule isn’t anything new. The sight of 16- and 17-year-olds practicing football wearing full pads in 100 degree heat has been a part of the game in Alabama since the 1970s.
If I had my way, things would go back to where they were in the 1960s and before: Football practices started around Labor Day, and the season began on the third Friday night in September.
Of course, with playoffs now stretching into December, my fantasy will never happen – but I can still dream.
The shorter summers can hurt kids from a financial standpoint as well. In many areas, students need summer jobs not just for extra spending money but sometimes to help with household expenses. If athletes have only a few weeks to work, they’re going to have to find a very understanding employer to hire them for such a short period of time.
And while most summer jobs for teens don’t exactly require rocket scientists, the work experience itself can be valuable for the vast majority of high school athletes who won’t go on to the professional ranks.
But the toothpaste is pretty much out of the tube. Leisure time is in short supply for high school athletes, and that’s not likely to change. So those days of summer may be hazy, but they aren’t lazy – that’s for sure.