When Did Competitive Sports Take Over American Childhood?

It all started in 1852, when Massachusetts became the first state to require kids to go to school.
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A boy from Chula Vista, California plays in the 2013 Little League World Series (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

American children not only participate in myriad afterschool activities, they also compete. In 2013 7.7 million children played on a high-school sports team, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. At the same time U.S. Youth Soccer, the national organization that oversees travel soccer, registers more than three million children between the ages of five and 19 who play at a competitive level (not taking into account the thousands of young children who play recreationally each year). Middle-class kids routinely try out for pay-to-play all-star teams, travel to regional and national tournaments, and clear off bookshelves to hold all of the trophies they have won.

It has not always been this way. About a hundred years ago, it would have been lower-class children competing under non-parental adult supervision while their upper-class counterparts participated in noncompetitive activities like dancing and music lessons, often in their homes. Children’s tournaments, especially athletic ones, came first to poor children—often immigrants—living in big cities.

Not until after World War II did these competitive endeavors begin to be dominated by children from the middle and upper-middle classes. The forces that have led to increasing inequality in education, the workplace, and other spheres have come to the world of play.

How did this transformation happen? Things first began to change in the 19th century, with the start of the mandatory-schooling movement. Massachusetts made schooling compulsory in 1852, though it wasn’t until 1917 that the final state, Mississippi, passed a similar law. With the institution of mandatory schooling, children experienced a profound shift in the structure of their daily lives, especially in the social organization of their time. Compulsory education brought leisure time into focus; since “school time” was delineated as obligatory, “free time” could now be identified as well.

What to do with this free time? The question was on the minds of parents, social workers, and “experts” who doled out advice on child-rearing. The answer lay partly in competitive sports leagues, which started to evolve to hold the interest of children. Urban reformers were particularly preoccupied with poor immigrant boys who, because of overcrowding in tenements, were often on the streets.  Initial efforts focused on the establishment of parks and playgrounds, and powerful, organized playground movements developed in New York City and Boston. But because adults didn’t trust boys to play unsupervised, attention soon shifted to organized sports.

Sports were seen as important in teaching the “American” values of cooperation, hard work, and respect for authority. According to historian Robert Halpern, progressive reformers thought athletic activities could prepare children for the “new industrial society that was emerging,” which would require them to be physical laborers. Organized youth groups took on the responsibility of providing children with sports activities.

In 1903 New York City’s Public School Athletic League for Boys was established, and formal contests between children, organized by adults, emerged as a way to keep the boys coming back to activities, clubs, and school. Formal competition ensured the boys’ continued participation since they wanted to defend their team’s record and honor. The Elementary Games Committee of the PSAL organized interschool athletic competition for boys through track and field meets and basketball and baseball contests; in 1914 2040 boys vied for the city championships in track and field held at Madison Square Gardens.

By 1910 17 other cities across the United States had formed their own competitive athletic leagues modeled after New York City’s PSAL. Settlement houses and ethnic clubs soon followed suit. The number of these boys’ clubs grew rapidly through the 1920s, working in parallel with school leagues.

But during the Depression many clubs with competitive leagues suffered financially and had to close, so poorer children from urban areas began to lose opportunities for competitive athletic contests organized by adults. Fee-based groups, such as the YMCA, began to fill the void, but usually only middle-class kids could afford to participate. At roughly the same historical moment athletic organizations were founded that would soon formally institute national competitive tournaments for young kids, for a price. For example, national pay-to-play organizations, such as Pop Warner Football came into being in 1929.

At the same time, many physical-education professionals stopped supporting athletic competition for young children because of worries that leagues supported competition only for the best athletes, leaving the others behind. Concerns about focusing on only the most talented athletes developed into questions about the harmfulness of competition. In the end this meant that much of the organized youth competition left the school system, even to this day, for elementary-school kids (though this isn’t true for high-school sports, as detailed in The Atlantic’s most recent cover story, “The Case Against High-School Sports”).

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Hilary Levey Friedman is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

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