Since my last post on how to restore sanity to youth sports, I’ve found a few more worthwhile reads on the subject. This is a hot issue! A Time magazine cover story by Sean Gregory lays out in vivid detail how kids playing games turned into a multibillion-dollar industry (thanks to the Free Range Kids blog for bringing the article to my attention). Here’s the main idea:
Across the nation, kids of all skill levels, in virtually every team sport, are getting swept up by a youth-sports economy that increasingly resembles the pros at increasingly early ages. Neighborhood Little Leagues, town soccer associations and church basketball squads that bonded kids in a community–and didn’t cost as much as a rent check–have largely lost their luster . . . . These local leagues have been nudged aside by private club teams, a loosely governed constellation that includes everything from development academies affiliated with professional sports franchises to regional squads run by moonlighting coaches with little experience. The most competitive teams vie for talent and travel to national tournaments. Others are elite in name only, siphoning expensive participation fees from parents of kids with little hope of making the high school varsity, let alone the pros.
Why would we do this to ourselves and our kids? Gregory offers some culprits. The first is good old capitalism, which drives the monetization of increasingly larger spheres of everyday life:
A range of private businesses are mining . . . deep, do-anything parental love. The U.S. youth-sports economy–which includes everything from travel to private coaching to apps that organize leagues and livestream games–is now a $15.3 billion market, according to WinterGreen Research, a private firm that tracks the industry. And the pot is rapidly getting bigger. According to figures that WinterGreen provided exclusively to TIME, the nation’s youth-sports industry has grown by 55% since 2010.
This entrepreneurial spirit has gained traction from the rise of the Internet. We have an insatiable hunger for online rankings of all things, and that apparently includes 7-year-old basketball players:
The Internet has emerged as a key middleman, equal parts sorting mechanism and hype machine. For virtually every sport, there is a site offering scouting reports and rankings. Want to know the top 15-and-under girls’ volleyball teams? PrepVolleyball.com has you covered (for a subscription starting at $37.95 per year). The basketball site middleschoolelite.com evaluates kids as young as 7 with no regard for hyperbole: a second-grader from Georgia is “a man among boys with his mind-set and skill set”; a third-grader from Ohio is “pro-bound.”
Yet the transformation of youth sports has not been only a conspiracy by American business. Parents have seized on the hope of sports scholarships as a financial solution to rising college costs:
There may be no single factor driving the professionalization of youth sports more than the dream of free college. With the cost of higher education skyrocketing–and athletic-department budgets swelling–NCAA schools now hand out $3 billion in scholarships a year. “That’s a lot of chum to throw into youth sports,” says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program. “It makes the fish a little bit crazy.”
In fact, as the article points out, this strategy is a long shot, given the small number of athletes who will play competitively in college. Yet the mythology persists, fortified by a grain of truth.
One of the main components of this insidious professionalism is single-sport specialization at a young age. So it’s worth noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics “encourages children to play multiple sports and delay specializing in a single sport until late adolescence. The academy advocates banning the practice of ranking athletes nationally and recruiting for college before they reach their late high school years.” (This Lifehacker post has the AAP link and other useful information.)
“We want kids to have more time for deliberate play,” says Dr. Joel Brenner, one of the authors of the AAP recommendations, “where they can just go out and play with their friends and have fun.” Once again, parents must stand up for the simplest things. Play. Fun. And the right to not care who may be the nation’s best 7-year-old basketball player.