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As COVID-19 upends fall sports, student-athletes face uncertain futures

"It has hurt me quite a bit, because I haven't been able to get in front of the coaches ... and show them how much progress I've made."

Nine days after Devon Clinkscales' mother told him they were going to be homeless, he got the news from his high school baseball coach: The season had been canceled because of COVID-19.

"You can just imagine getting an eviction notice on March 2, then a couple days later being told the season is over," he said.

IMAGE: Devon Clinkscales
Devon Clinkscales, 18, of Atlanta, whose last season of high school baseball was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, fields a ball during a game.

At the start of 2020, Clinkscales, 18, was eager to play baseball. It was going to be his last opportunity to play at his high school in Atlanta before graduating.

He was hoping a productive spring baseball season would be his ticket to college scholarships. His father's salary as a custodian had been slashed earlier in the year, and his mother lost her job as a housekeeper because of the pandemic. Clinkscales said he had been in touch with some college coaches, but because he could not show his skills in games, college baseball financial offers never materialized.

"Once baseball stopped becoming an option and we were out of school and scholarships started slowing down, I knew I wasn't going to have the funds at the end of the year to be able to apply for college," he said.

In a generation for whom college has become an expected next step, soaring tuition costs and financial constraints for families were among the reasons most cited by those who do not continue on to earn higher education degrees after high school, the Federal Reserve Board found in a survey last year. More than 180,000 students use sports scholarships to help finance their educations every year, according to the NCAA, the organization that oversees sports programs for more than 1,000 colleges and universities.

Rodney Saulsberry, head football coach at Whitehaven High School in Memphis, Tennessee, said many of his student-athletes see athletics as their only way to college.

"College is extremely expensive, and unless you're well off or you're an affluent parent, an affluent family unit, you can't afford it," Saulsberry said. "If you can master a skill enough to where someone will pay for your education and offer you the opportunity to gain the knowledge, to gain a degree, in concert, that's what we try to push, because without it, without the scholarship, a lot of us will not get that opportunity."

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Not every student hinges the decision on college on a scholarship, although it may be a financially strained student's best hope for underwriting a university education. It's never a given: College athletic scholarships are highly competitive. Only 2 percent of high school athletes are "awarded some form of athletics scholarship to compete in college," according to the NCAA.

While some highly ranked recruits enter their senior years committed to schools already or juggle multiple offers — Bryan Bresee, the No. 1 football recruit in the class of 2020, committed to Clemson University in April 2019 as a junior — hundreds of other kids are waiting for their breaks, eager to leverage athletic ability into degrees. For those talented few, an important part of earning a scholarship is recruitment. But that relies heavily on meeting coaches in person — a process that has been upended by the pandemic and social distancing guidelines. Recruiters could not watch players in games or practices, players could not take part in campus visits to meet coaches, and there were few summer league games where they typically could compete against other top talents in front of coaches.

Recruiting through the summer for schools in Division I and Division II of the NCAA (Division III schools do not offer scholarships) is restricted. Division I is in a "dead period," meaning coaches can have no in-person contact with recruits or their families. Division II is in a "quiet period," meaning there can be face-to-face contact but coaches still cannot watch player competes.

The limited opportunities for in-person evaluations made a very competitive process even more difficult: Only 6 percent of high school athletes are recruited to play in the NCAA.

Lisa Strasman, president of Next College Student Athlete, a recruiting network that helps student-athletes looking to play collegiate sports, said COVID-19-related restrictions on in-person evaluations have had the largest impact on the recruiting process.

"Typically, the spring and summer months are prime recruiting times where college coaches are traveling to these camps and tournaments and recruiting events to watch kids play, and that hasn't been happening," Strasman said.

Without the option of in-person evaluations at camps and tournaments, most recruiting is happening remotely. Athletes are using social media to promote themselves by uploading videos of their practices or fitness regimens for coaches to watch.

Taylor Shearer, a football player entering his senior year at Mechanicsburg High School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, is using social media to reach out to coaches.

"The biggest thing I was doing through the pandemic was I would record myself working out and post it on Twitter and trying to get noticed through there, because I know that's a big platform for a lot of college coaches, and that's where they look for a lot of recruits. I would occasionally make different highlight tapes from my film to the prior years and just post them, just trying to keep my name out there on the Twitter platform," he said.

While student athletes vie for the attention of college coaches with videos demonstrating their skills, it remains unclear when — or whether — many of them will be able to showcase their talents during actual games.

Districts planning to open may still hit roadblocks: Recently Oneonta High School in Alabama, a state where games are scheduled to begin Aug. 20, decided to quarantine its football team and marching band after five players showed symptoms of COVID-19, said Joe Whited, the school's principal.

More than 30 states have modified their seasons for fall sports like football, cross country, volleyball and soccer, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, an organization that advises the state associations that oversee high school sports in each state. Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Rhode Island, among other states, had not made final decisions on when fall athletics will start and which sports will play as of Saturday.

Football player Bailey Jaramillo, 17, of Portland, Oregon, was relying on a strong senior season to show recruiters how much he has improved from his junior year.

“It has hurt me quite a bit, because I haven't been able to get in front of the coaches that are interested in the schools and show them how much progress I've made this offseason and show them what I'm able to do from last year,” he said.

IMAGE: Bailey Jaramillo
Bailey Jaramillo, 17, during a football game for Lake Oswego High School in Portland, Ore. He is unsure whether he will get to play because of the pandemic.Bailey Jaramillo

Right now, although Jaramillo is talking to multiple schools, he does not have any offers in hand. The coaches wanted to see the first few games of his senior year to make a decision, his father said.

Jaramillo might not get that opportunity. The Oregon School Activities Association announced that the high school football season will be postponed to March. Now Jaramillo and his family are strongly considering moving to Idaho, where football is still set to begin.

Saulsberry, the Tennessee football coach, advises his players to focus on being prepared to perform whenever they do get to play — uncertainties notwithstanding.

"This is not ideal. It's not what we're used to. And it may be less of an opportunity," Saulsberry said. "We're telling guys: 'Seize the opportunity that's in front of you. Train as if you're going to only have one opportunity to get the exposure that you need.'"