Commentary

Sport specialization among reasons for decline in multisport athletes

Originally Published: July 28, 2008
By Chris Preston | Special to ESPN.com

There were times during his first spring as a UCLA student when Darius Savage's hectic schedule overwhelmed him. A member of both the football and track and field teams for the Bruins, Savage would spend many of his days darting between two practices: first enduring a couple hours under the hot Southern California sun in full pads at spring football practice, then throwing a discus and shot put around for a few more hours at outdoor track practice. Oh, and there was that little matter of completing all his school work at one of the more demanding universities in America.

[+] EnlargeDarius Savage
UCLA Athletic Department Darius Savage juggles football, track and field, and classes as a dual-sport athlete at UCLA.

Some nights, Savage would lie in bed exhausted and sore, thinking to himself: Do I really want to do this?

Ultimately, the answer was "yes." Coming from an extremely athletic family -- his mother, LaDene, played volleyball, softball and track at San Diego City College; his father, Robert, starred at running back for Fresno State -- Darius possesses not only the good genes but the drive to play two sports at a high level.

"It's a challenge," Savage, now entering his third year at UCLA, admits, "but what is sport without a challenge? When I'm competing, I have no thoughts [of doubt]. I wouldn't change this for anything."

On scholarship for football, Savage was also granted permission to walk on to the Bruins' track and field team. These days he excels in both sports. After redshirting his first year on the football team and seeing action as the wedge setter for the Bruins' kick return team last season, the 6-4, 335-pound Savage entered fall camp this year listed as the starter at left guard. Throwing the shot put and discus in the winter and spring (thus technically playing for three UCLA varsity teams), Savage earned All-America honors in the shot put during indoor track season and in the discus last spring. He harbors both Olympic and NFL aspirations.

At UCLA, Savage is simply the latest in a long line of gifted multisport athletes. The names of past Bruins who shined in more than one sport reads like a who's who of legendary multisport athletes: Jackie Robinson, who in 1940 became UCLA's first four-sport letterwinner as a member of the baseball, basketball, football and track and field teams; James Owens in the '70s, a 1976 Olympian in the high hurdles and a future NFL running back; Jackie-Joyner Kersee in the '80s, who in addition to her track and field exploits scored over 1,000 points for the Bruins' basketball team; and Jonathan Ogden in the '90s, a sure-fire NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman who like Savage also threw the shot put and discus. One could make the argument that UCLA is the historical epicenter for two-sport athletes.

Jonathan Ogden
UCLA Athletic Department Jonathan Ogden starred on UCLA's football and track and field teams in the 1990s.

With that in mind, it is quite telling that Savage is the only two-sport athlete roaming the UCLA campus these days, according to the school's sports information department. In truth, the multisport athlete is a dying breed. Throughout much of the 20th century, it was commonplace for major college athletes to participate in at least two sports. From Jim Thorpe at Carlisle in the early 1900s to Jim Brown at Syracuse in the '50s to Bo Jackson (Auburn), Deion Sanders (Florida State) and Brian Jordan (University of Richmond) in the 1980s, the 20th century was littered with two-sport college athletes who also thrived at the professional and/or Olympic level. Nowadays, however, sports at their highest level have become such big moneymakers that high schoolers blessed with the ability and the desire to play two college sports are usually discouraged from doing so and thus forced to make a choice.

Savage says that every other school he visited while making the college rounds raised an eyebrow when he informed them that he was intent on playing two sports. "Guys here weren't even sure how I would do it," Savage says of his UCLA coaches and teammates. "From a track and field point of view, they don't want you to play football because there's such a high risk of getting hurt."

Furthermore, college sports have become so specialized with the evolution of things such as spring practice in football, fall ball in baseball and intense offseason weight lifting regimens prescribed in just about every sport that playing just one of them is a year-round commitment. In the days of Thorpe and Robinson, long before intrasquad spring football games attracted nearly 100,000 obsessive onlookers in places such as Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, college athletes could take things one sport at a time. Now practices and sometimes games often overlap, leaving precious little time for academic work and even less time for the busy social life most college students take for granted.

"We have good [mandatory] tutoring to help us with our school work," says Savage. "But during the week I'm way too tired to do anything [socially]."

Another recent UCLA athlete who managed to ably balance two sports was Danny Farmer. The all-time receiving yardage leader in UCLA gridiron history, Farmer also won two national championships as a member of the men's volleyball team. An L.A. native, Farmer followed in the footsteps of his father George -- the last Bruin to play three sports (football, basketball and track) in the same school year back in the late '60s. Truth be told, though, Danny had wanted to go somewhere else and carve out a different path than his father. But in the end, Danny's determination to play both football and volleyball at the collegiate level raised too many red flags among coaches at other schools, so UCLA became his only option.

[+] EnlargeJackie Robinson
UCLA Athletic Department Jackie Robinson remains one of college sports' most celebrated multi-sport athletes.

"Other schools were not very receptive to me playing two sports," says Farmer, a 1999 UCLA grad taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fourth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. "At a lot of schools, coaches just don't want their athletes playing two sports, and I think that's a mistake. There are so many ways to get in trouble in the offseason [if you only play one college sport]. If I have a child, I will tell them to play as many sports as possible. You see all these people playing year-round basketball, club sports and Pee Wee football, but a lot of kids are interested in playing multiple sports."

Part of what made Farmer's participation in two sports at UCLA possible was the fact that he walked on to both the football and volleyball teams. Because there was no scholarship involved initially (he earned a football scholarship after his freshman season), UCLA was taking less of a risk in allowing Farmer to play two sports. Therein lies the reason why there are but a few remaining clusters of Division I schools where the two-sport athlete isn't necessarily on the brink of extinction -- namely in the Ivy League, the last Division I conference in which athletic scholarships are still forbidden.

Schools in the Ancient Eight are no longer flush with two-sport athletes, mind you, as sports specialization has had a trickle-down effect even in this last bastion of scholarship-free student-athletes. But most Ivy League members boast a steadier diet of two-sport athletes than do their full-athletic-scholarship Division I brethren. Columbia University was home to three of them this past academic year, including John Baumann  a first team All-Ivy League basketball player and second team All-Ivy pitcher for the Lions' baseball squad.

"Because Baumann was a pitcher, he had different [off-season] responsibilities," says Lions baseball coach Brett Boretti, whose team was the beneficiary of the Columbia basketball staff's decision to allow Baumann -- originally a hoops recruit -- to play two sports. "We had no difficulties with John. You worry about people getting hurt, but at the same time I would never hold that against a player. At our level, if an individual player is good enough to help our program and good enough to help another program, more power to him."

[+] EnlargeDanny Farmer
UCLA Athletic Department Danny Farmer's college choices were limited by coaches' reluctance to allow him to play more than one sport.

But money talks, even in the Ivy League. Take basketball, for instance. Like everyone else in Division I, Ivy League teams that qualify for the men's or women's NCAA basketball tournament each year earn huge payouts, not to mention national television exposure -- an invaluable recruiting tool. As the March Madness cash cow keeps getting fatter, the risk Ivy League basketball programs take in recruiting a two-sport athlete is ever increasing. In basketball especially, one injury can mean the difference between a second-place finish and an automatic bid into the Field of 65. In high-major conferences such as the ACC and Big East, there is little difference between first and second when it comes to qualifying for NCAAs. In a traditional one-bid league like the Ivy, teams can ill afford to risk an injury. By allowing players to participate in a second sport, they are theoretically doubling that risk.

"The pressure of winning and losing on coaches these days makes us a little more protective -- even in the Ivy League," Boretti concedes. "There's always the chance you might get burned."

As they enter into this suddenly hyper-protective world of college sports, just think of the opportunities the premier two-sport high school athletes of today miss out on when they are forced to pick one. For every Jeff Samardzija -- a pro-caliber football and baseball player (called up to the big leagues just last week by the Chicago Cubs) at Notre Dame who chose to focus solely on baseball only after four years of college -- there are countless Terrelle Pryors. Pryor, the do-everything quarterback out of Jeannette (Pa.) High School who, as the most coveted prep football player in the class of 2008, ended a drawn-out nationwide recruiting war back in March by signing with Ohio State.

But all we'll know Pryor for is football. We'll never know -- and more importantly, neither will Pryor -- just how good a basketball player he could have been. In addition to being the most dynamic high school football player in the country as a senior, he also developed into a top-50 national basketball recruit. By committing to the Buckeyes, Pryor had only one option: football. Could he have become what Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and others have strived to be: the first modern-day NFL/NBA star?

"I think things have changed across the country not only at the collegiate level, but at the high school level," says Bob Palcic, Savage's offensive line coach at UCLA who also coached Ogden. "We've become so one-sport specific. Coaches always want kids to focus on one sport year-round, and I'm certainly not for that. I always encourage [young] kids to play more than one sport. I hear Darius has a chance at [eventually] making it to the Olympics as a shot putter. I don't want to stand in the way of that."

[+] EnlargeJohn Baumann
Mike McLaughlinBasketball and baseball player John Baumann is an anomaly even in the Ivy League.

That's the real tragedy of today's sports specialization: denying a college athlete the chance to play one (or more) of the sports he or she loves is the equivalent of shattering a dream.

If Savage truly has a shot at realizing both his Olympic and NFL dreams, is it not his institution's duty to provide him with the preparation to do so? Isn't the whole point of college to help you decide what you want to do after you graduate, not before?

Perhaps an even greater tragedy is what the death of the two-sport athlete denies the fans. Only the truly exceptional athletes can flourish in more than one sport at the highest levels of competition. That's why when such a multitalented phenom comes along, the American public is so dazzled that it relishes the opportunity to watch the athlete in as many sports as possible. That was the wonder of Bo Jackson. As Nike's "Bo Knows" ad campaign cleverly captured, we were so thoroughly mesmerized by the things Jackson could do on a football and baseball field that we often daydreamed about what else he could do.

Sadly, if Jackson were a high school senior today, he might have been discouraged from ever playing two sports at Auburn. He likely would have had to pick one, and America would have lost one of its true modern marvels. Instead, the 2012 Nike slogan might have read: "Bo Knows One Thing: Football."

Chris Preston is an editor for the Northeast Sports Network and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at cpreston03@gmail.com.