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.