Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Silent Demise of Varsity Scouting

"Why doesn't anyone do Varsity Scouting?" my son recently asked me. In our area we have many registered Varsity units. But only a tiny number of them actually run the Varsity program. Many use some elements of the program, but it's not supported in any way like the Boy Scout program, which continues to enjoy strong support from sponsoring organizations and families.

Varsity Scouting, which is aimed primarily at boys ages 14-15 (but can include youth up to 18 years old) was primarily pushed by the LDS Church in the late 70s and early 80s. My council served as one of the pilot councils for the program. Varsity Scouting received a lot of attention and enthusiastic support during this phase. It was common to see young men wearing blaze orange windbreakers, some of them sporting the brown V varsity letter award.

During those heady days I helped staff a couple of major Varsity events. One was held at a local university and was attended by hundreds of people. Many competitions were held, ranging from field and team sports to chess.

In 1984 Varsity Scouting became an official BSA program. From my perspective, the program seemed to run with some enthusiasm in the early years. But around here it has largely been dead for the past decade and a half.

LDS sponsored Varsity units continue to meet weekly in my area, but it is very rare to find a unit where the boys are even aware that a Varsity Scout Pledge exists, let alone know what it says. Varsity uniforms are scarce at these weekly meetings. It is unusual to find a unit that runs or even pretends to know anything about the advancement program, so finding a boy that earns his varsity letter or Denali Award is very uncommon.

We get a handful of adult Varsity leaders out to our district's monthly roundtable meeting. Even among those stalwarts, few of them actually run the program in their units. They do some kind of super activity each summer. But they rarely otherwise go camping or pursue any of the program's athletic goals.

Many parents that have boys registered in the Varsity program would not know what you were talking about if you used the phrase "Varsity Scouts" in their presence. Many LDS bishopric members (who represent the sponsoring organization) are in the same boat at the parents.

The one thing that seems common among the boys, leaders, parents, and organizational representatives is that the moment a boy turns 14 he is out of scouts, never has to wear a Scout uniform again, and doesn't have to bother with scouting advancement unless his parents want him to earn his Eagle rank. Even then, the advancement is usually handled by the boy's former scoutmaster instead of his varsity coach.

In my area there is a deeply embedded cultural idea that scouting starts at age eight when boys become Cub Scouts (the LDS Church does not sponsor seven-year-old Tiger Cubs) and wraps up when boys turn 14. Both the eight-year-old entry point and the 14-year-old exit point are seen as rites of passage to a new phase of life. Except for the few exceptional scouts that work on camp staff or are active in the Order of the Arrow, doing scouting after turning 14 is akin to an elementary aged kid admitting that he still likes to watch TV shows aimed at toddlers.

It seems as if both the LDS Church (Varsity Scouting's main sponsor) and the BSA have decided to let the program wither, perhaps following the aging and/or demise of the program's founders.

The linked Wikipedia article asserts, "The validity of the program continued to be questioned. Supporters of Varsity Scouting found themselves having to fight tenaciously on a number of different occasions to preserve the program. The program survived each battle, but not without considerable change." The program's stature was reduced over time and a separate Wood Badge training program for Varsity leaders was dropped more than a decade ago.

Most Varsity coaches that I have talked to in recent years about this issue say that they prefer to focus on the LDS Church's Duty to God program instead of the Varsity Scouting program. The Duty to God program has presumably been designed to work hand-in-hand with Varsity Scouting, but that's not how leaders tend to see it. They see Varsity Scouting as an unnecessary additional burden rather than a beneficial supplement.

LDS Church leaders at the local, mid-tier, and general levels have done nothing of which I am aware to change this reticent approach to Varsity Scouting. So it would appear that they find it acceptable.

Being able to remember the heyday of Varsity Scouting, it has been somewhat rueful for me to watch the program waste away. I doubt that we're going to see it revive in the future. The interest for that simply doesn't seem to exist. It appears that some think this is all for the best.


Michael said...

I was part of that initial push in 79-80 as a boy and loved many of the aspects of the program more than the other families of scouting. I have been in committee leadership for many years and constantly pushed the program but the requirements are like a unicorn to some leaders mainly because they refuse to be trained, or to crack a book and get going. Interestingly enough I am now a Varsity team asst coach (venture assistant group advisor and committee chairman but that is another story) and in my research and program designing in the last few months I have found the administration of the varsity program is much funner and easier to administer than Scouts or Ventures. Also interesting to note that the GSLC runs 4 Varsity centered council wide events every year by far more than any other family. We attend all of them and will continue to do so. Last Court of Honor I handed out the first varsity letter in this troop for probably 15+ years and the next court I will award a bar and another letter and mid way through next year I will most likely be awarding 2 Denali awards. Leaders get trained and don't be afraid of the program it is one of the funnest programs in scouting.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Michael, I take my hat off to you. The Varsity program really is very well designed and is a lot of fun. I know of a handful of units in my council that actually run the program. The council holds two events each year (summer and winter), but the quality of the events depends greatly on who they get to run them.

I still maintain that unless strong direction comes down from LDS general authorities on running this program, it will sadly continue to be an anomaly rather than a mainstream program.