By Laura Pappano
It’s often there in the background, points out journalist and author Mark Hyman: The financial cost of youth sports. It’s not just the equipment and the registration fees, the commemorative team photos, or recruiting videos, or the extra coaching, or hotel and travel costs for away tournaments, or….
You get the point. This is Pay for Play so interwoven into our youth sports culture that we’ve hardly paused to think about its consequences. But, fortunately, in his new book, The Most Expensive Game in Town, Hyman has. We spoke recently:
FGN: You describe a troubling “youth sports economy.” How does it affect what our kids do when they go out and play?
MH: I believe and the health professional believe there is a real relationship between a family’s investment in their kid’s sports life and their financial investment. The more you spend in time and money the more difficult it is to walk away from this experience that should be more about your kid. [As a UConn soccer coach pointed out] your child is not a mutual fund. This is not about getting a return on your investment.
FGN: Some, of course, are hoping for college scholarships, and many scholarships are not full, but partial and split among many players.
MH: One of the problems we have is that our sports system is set up for the most talented kids – 5 percent of kids – who may someday be college athletes. Only 5 percent will play in college, only 2 percent will ever get any scholarship aid – but the entire system is set up to meet the needs of that very small percentage. You have sports training for babies. Parents having a concern they don’t want their children to fall behind. They want them to have every advantage. The Tiger Track is very powerful. Parents have his idea that the sooner they get their kids started and training them up, the greater the chance to have a college athlete in the family. This is not serving the interest of most kids very well: 75% of kids drop out of these sports at age 13. If Walmart were losing 75% of its customers, they would figure something else out.
FGN: So parents become over-invested…
MH: There is a certain prestige and stature that attaches to you if your child is a great athlete. All of us have experienced that. When I was coaching Little League and I had a son who pitched and he was striking out all the other 11-year-old kids, I was a few inches taller.
FGN: So how did we get here?
MH: There is no question that youth sports have become more commercialized and professionalized and it is harder and harder to distinguish between sports for kids and college sport and pro sports. ESPN—you can turn on EPSN not infrequently and watch not only high school kids playing sports, but 11 and 12 year olds.
FGN: I’m thinking Little League World Series.
MH: Is it a positive thing for kids to be exposed to? One child psychologist said it was little putting a little boy in a man’s suit. Are 11-year-olds really prepared to be playing in front of 40,000 people and how many on television? I actually think girls have it better than boys in that regard.
FGN: Certainly, there are many kids – especially poor and urban girls – who don’t have this problem and don’t have access to sports and the good that playing brings.
MH: The historical perspective is that in the 1950s, 60s, 70s youth sports were primarily happening on a rec field in the community and the kids cut across all socioeconomic backgrounds. In the early 80s during the Reagan administration public funding for rec centers dried up. Parents who could afford to underwrite their kid’s experience took that on. Parents who couldn’t drifted away.
Now we have this great divide where we have kids who are not playing in their neighborhoods, but on travel teams. They are all coming fro the same end of the socio-economic scale. Kids who live in cities or less affluent communities have less access. They don’t have organized league ad in some cases they don’t even have fields. On the one hand, we have kids playing at one sport all year round and getting injured as a consequence – and we have other kids who are totally inactive. There is no place for them to get instruction or support.
In the book I want to acknowledge this is not all about how Nike, Under Armour,and Gatorade are affecteing kids – but kids who don’t have aproblem of too much commercialization. They don’t have any access at all. I live in Baltimore City and I was talking to a high school baseball coach who had 30 kids try out for the team. Half had never played on an organized team before they came to try out.
FGN: The takeaway…
MH: We are kind of asking for the wrong things out of the experience.