Home > Uncategorized > “Professionalism of Kids Sports”, Athletic Fees in Public Schools Create a Two Tiered Athletics System Where “Amateurs”, Poor Children Lose

“Professionalism of Kids Sports”, Athletic Fees in Public Schools Create a Two Tiered Athletics System Where “Amateurs”, Poor Children Lose

I was deeply saddened and full of nostalgia when I read “What’s Lost When Only Rich Kids Play Sports“, Linda Flanagan’s Atlantic essay. In the essay she describes the experience of a poverty stricken female athlete who came of age in the early 1970s an benefitted from her participation in athletics. She laments the loss of that kind of opportunity today, noting that the cost of participating on an organized sports team has created a two tiered system:

…the fruits of America’s fixation with youth sports are largely concentrated among children with means: According to data recently released by the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program, household wealth is the primary driver of kids’ athletic participation. Compared to their peers whose families make more than $100,000, children ages 6 through 12 whose family income is under $25,000 are nearly three times as likely to be “inactive”—meaning they played no sport during the year—and half as likely to play on a team sport even for one day. “Sports in America have separated into sports-haves and have-nots,” said Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Sports and Society program.

And this separation is the result, in large measure, of the “professionalization of kids sports” as described in this paragraph:

Also pushing poorer kids out is the professionalization of kids’ sports: Time reports that the business of kids’ sports has grown 55 percent since 2010, and is now a $15.3 billion industry. Driving that growth is the perception that a child’s athletic achievement might improve her college prospects, lead to an athletic scholarship, and lend some prestige to the family name. Well-off-enough parents invest in specialized camps, leagues, equipment, and travel teams, while children from families without the financial resources or time—competitive kids’ games are often played across state lines, devouring weekends for parents as well as players—fill out dwindling town leagues. On top of these factors, schools with shrinking budgets are dropping physical education or requiring kids to pay for their school teams. Seventy percent of kids leave sports entirely by age 13.

This thoughtful… and very sad… essay understates the impact of athletic fees and school and community budget cuts. The cuts to town budgets, particularly in poverty stricken communities, lead to the abandonment of town funded athletic fields, the closure of playgrounds, and the inability of the communities to sustain YMCAs or churches that once provided indoor play spaces.

I came of age in the late 1950s and attended HS in the early 1960s. As a youngster the town I lived in had well equipped playgrounds, empty lots that we converted into playing fields, and affordable “amateur” teams offered by the YMCA and the churches. My HS had a robust intramural program as well as a wide array of team sports with varsity and JV levels. There were church basketball and softball leagues and community organizations and businesses supported “amateur” Little League teams, basketball leagues, and parks. As a child growing up in that time, I felt like the community wanted the children in town to have a good life even if they were not exceptional athletes.

During my 35 year career as a public school administrator I witnessed the erosion of local support for public parks– particularly in poor communities— and the demise of intramural athletics and the institution of athletic fees due to budget constraints. Both of these phenomena denied opportunities to those “amateur level” students like me to participate in organized team sports and discouraged children raised in poverty from even considering participation in athletics. And the “professionalism” Ms. Flanagan describes was a contributing factor to this trend. Why? Because one of the rationales public schools use to justify athletic fees is the fact that parents are accustomed to paying for their child to participate in athletics and one of the rationales town’s use to allow their play spaces to fall into disrepair is that “no one uses them”. In short, the virtuous circle that existed in my youth, where the public saw organized athletic activities and parks designed for those activities as something worth paying for, has been replaced with a vicious circle today where sports is a frill for all but the extraordinarily talented or those with money.

The solution offered in Ms. Flanagan’s article, a de facto reliance on philanthropy, falls short of the mark. What is needed is a communitarian movement to restore broad public funding to ensure that all children have the same opportunity to benefit from participation in sports, for such widespread participation will help restore opportunities for children of all economic levels to get to know each other and learn from each other. As Ms. Flanagan writes:

A two-tiered system of youth sports—one in which the wealthy play on pricey private clubs and the less well-off are limited to uncompetitive community programs—also undermines one of the quieter virtues of team sports: They can be places of organic integration, where economic and racial differences are supplanted by ordinary friendship and the collective desire to win.

As an “amateur” high school athlete I can attest to the benefits of community sports, for it was in intramural athletics, church leagues, and playgrounds that I experienced “…organic integration, where economic and racial differences were supplanted by ordinary friendship and the collective desire to win“.  I enjoyed cheering for our varsity basketball team as they won the championship in my senior year… but I experienced pure joy when I took the floor myself in church leagues, YMCA leagues, on intramural teams, and on the playgrounds in our community where the nets were replaced with a phone call to the recreation department. It saddens me to know that kids like me today do not have that same opportunity.

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