American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports
As young athletes from well-off families join expensive travel leagues, Derek Thompson argued recently, local leagues are left with fewer players, fewer involved parents, and fewer resources—creating a classist system.
As a longtime educator, former Notre Dame scholarship athlete (ice hockey), and parent/grandparent, I found “American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports” both informative and timely. There are three trends over the past few decades that concern me and should concern us all:
1) Children are increasingly asked (in some cases required) to specialize in sports at an earlier and earlier age, thereby denying them opportunities to explore other sports and activities that often lead to lifetime enjoyment.
2) Parents are led to believe that in order for their children to excel, they must spend large amounts of money for specialized coaching, participation on travel teams, and even video presentations to “market” their child’s talents and skills to interested NCAA schools.
3) Many parents allow their own unrealized aspirations to live through their children, as time spent coaching, strolling the sidelines at a game, or sitting in the midst of a parent group in a gym or rink will readily attest. Kids growing up in this environment are almost always doomed to fail the expectations of such parents.
The odds of a young person making an NFL,NBA, WNBA, NHL, or MLB team vary, but they are always quite low.
We need to encourage excellence. At the same time, we need to be realistic. The vast majority of kids playing sports today will not earn an athletic scholarship, let alone a professional paycheck. Let’s encourage participation among all sectors of our population, rich and poor, talented and not so talented. The greatest lessons learned in sports have nothing to do with professional contracts and NCAA scholarships. They are about fostering discipline, resilience, teamwork, good health, and, yes, lifelong enjoyment of a multitude of sports. Furthermore, they are a terrific way of connecting all sectors of society.
In our community, starting after age 8 or 9, depending on the sport, it is difficult to find leagues where you can practice more than once a week. Lack of affordable gym and field space is one of the contributors to this, and it’s not mentioned in the article. Cities raise money with these fees, and hence prioritize leagues with money.
I have three children participating in youth sports. The situation you’re describing concerning club teams is not the cause for decreased participation in youth sports for lower-socioeconomic-status families. Transportation, money, and time have a larger impact.
The article ignores the extensive work carried out by AYSO soccer and Little League baseball. These organizations provide affordable opportunities for many children.
Derek Thompson replies:
I really appreciate these emails. I don’t have children. Even if I did, I would be in no position to question the individual local experience of parents, many of whom say travel teams have hurt local sports participation, and others who insist this is not the case. But I’ll simply say this: As a rule, I distrust any mono-causal explanations for complex phenomena. The decline of youth-sports participation surely has something to do with the popularity of video games and other at-home media. But the rise of childhood-enrichment spending in the U.S., the gap between enrichment spending in rich and poor families, and the way this trend has manifested in the growth of high-cost travel teams in a nation of stark household-income inequality are unmistakable factors in the hollowing out of local sports leagues.