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Jul. 12 2010 - 6:06 pm | 160 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

American youth sports system: The root of all evil

It’s rare you see a newspaper editorial that wraps up all the ills of the youth sports-industrial complex at once, blaming it for poor athlete development, obesity, classism and minivan windows caked with messages like “Go Lightning! Katie #12! Whoooo!”

The Mercury News of San Jose, Calif., uses the recently concluded World Cup to conclude that the way youth sports is run in the USA sucks soccer balls.

The burst of excitement when it seemed the United States might have a chance to get to the World Cup final this year has led to heightened hopes that we’ll make it someday. But without a revolution in how we deal with youth sports, it’s unlikely to happen.

During today’s game between Spain and the Netherlands, on too many playgrounds across America, the soccer goals will be locked up — available only to children whose parents have the money and the inclination to pay for them to play.

Unregulated private clubs are increasingly dominating access to American youth sports. Parents now spend more than $4 billion every year for private sports training for their children, with kids from less wealthy or less sports-inclined families denied equal opportunity to develop their talents.

This is not the way to develop world-class teams in sports like soccer, when in most of the world even the poorest kids grow up kicking a ball around. More important, an over-reliance on pay-to-play sports is not in the best interest of children’s overall development.

I can give you 4 billion reasons why pay-to-play isn’t going to change. It’s not just the athletic companies, travel league organizers, concession stand suppliers and minivan-window marker manufacturers that don’t want to see things change. The problem is that no matter how much you try to equalize things, parents are more than willing to pay big bucks to gain an advantage for their children. I’m not sure how you stop that. “Hey, parents! [Finger wags.] You stop doing what you think is best for your kid!”

The editorial notes that the only sport in which the United States is a consistent world power is basketball, because of “players who primarily develop their skills on public courts, playing pickup games after school and on weekends.” I hate to break this to the Mercury News editorial board, but has it ever heard of AAU ball? Of course, poor kids often only get an opportunity there because they’ve shown some incredible amount of talent and physical prowess early, and some sugar daddy wants to cash in once the first pro contract is signed.

However, I, along with the Mercury News editorial board, would like to think all hope is not lost in giving all kids an equal chance of at least participating in sports, regardless of income, particularly as cash-strapped schools, cities and parks make cuts or ras

America needs a national debate about the direction of youth sports. Educators and health officials at all levels should be discussing whether sports teams should have more defined seasons and whether all children should have more access to fields and teams.

Of all nations, ours should be dedicated to equal opportunity in youth sports and fitness. Besides promoting health, sports can help keep kids engaged in school and get into college.

And as a side benefit, by developing all the American talent available, we’ll also have a better shot at producing world-class teams.


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s a problem in all sports in suburban kids, to my point of view.

    Kids aren’t interested enough to play when they aren’t being herded, directed and have all the fixings of a game.

    Kids have other choices of what to do with their time.

    Families are too spread out in neighborhoods – there aren’t enough similar age kids close by to have even a small sided game of anything.

    Paranoia of the next child predator keeping kids close to home.

    Too many viewing alternatives to be exposed to a lot of TV sports at a young age, added to game times that start too late at night for kids to see much play.

  2. collapse expand

    Bob,
    All your points and the points raised by the Merc. News are easily understood. Our pro athletes have become the most profiled and revered members of our world and the pay days they enjoy are the envy of everyone except those working in the world of finance. It’s interesting that there are simultaneous complaints that close to 30% of the Ivy League grads are choosing to enter the finance field rather than pursue fields that will serve us all better than a field that produces mainly personal wealth at the expense of all of us.
    Youth sports have become big business as people chase down the dream of cashing some day or gaining entry to our best colleges. The reality is that these are legitimate goals, but goals that will only be attained by a small fraction of the athletes that pursue them. Most parents would be much better off by saving all the costs of their athletics and investing in education for their children. But like those that invest in the mega-lotteries where you have a better chance of being hit by lightning than winning, folks are more than willing to chase dreams, even if the odds of winning are very very slim.

  3. collapse expand

    DP and question, both of you raise great points. But what can we do about them? That’s the part that frustrates me.

    • collapse expand

      Bob,
      The problem simply cannot be stopped. There are always new leagues popping up with a philosophy of getting back to the roots of the game by making them fun, giving players equal playing time etc. These always start out great, but once a few of the best players and families get recruited to play at a higher level, with more “exposure, better coaching, more chances for upward mobility” and other reasons it starts a drain on the whole idea in the first place. The best players in most sports around the world have traditionally come from low income environments because they used sports as their sole form of recreation. That’s no so much the case anymore, as the business side of things has continually lowered the age of when they try to recruit talent. It used to be high school age, then it was middle school and today we are looking at kids 12 and under being looked at by coaches and programs. It’s sad, but as the bucks and promises keep being handed out to younger and younger talent scouts, it’s not going to stop. Just yesterday MSNBC had a piece on about girls going to summer modeling camps. The host asked the guest who ran these camps if she thought 7 years old might be a little young for this; the response was of course not.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Really good question.

      It goes against the mantra of unstructured free play of sports, but moms and dads can set up pick-up game days and even join in! Our 6 year old’s baseball team had a great time at several practices when parents joined in out in the field. Easy to do for younger soccer teams, and to build a parent-kid game into the team picnic (note: don’t hold team events at restaurants and moon bounce places).

      Kids are capable of playing the sports they play for much longer than the scheduled game times – our son at 5 had 45 minute soccer games that each kid played roughly 22 minutes of – get a few kids together, play for longer!

      I think to bring some joy of the sport to the smaller kids (which is what I have) the parents need to come off the sidelines and play side by side at times. Transfer the knowledge and the joy in playing, and I think that would help create more interest in playing in non-game times.

      I do know that what we’ve been doing lately – matching bags, full uniforms at age 6, and trophies x 3 seasons a year – isn’t really making playing a sport a bigger part of their life than all of their other options.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    A youth sports blog written by Bob Cook. He contributes to NBCSports.com, or MSNBC.com, if you prefer. He’s delivered sports commentaries for All Things Considered. For three years he wrote the weekly “Kick Out the Sports!” column for Flak Magazine.

    Most importantly for this blog, Bob is a father of four who is in the throes of being a sports parent and youth coach in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago. He reserves the right to change names to protect the innocent and the extremely, extremely guilty.

    You can follow me at facebook.com/rkcookjr and twitter.com/notgoingpro. I'm endlessly fascinating.

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    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Oak Lawn, Ill.

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    You can see what I’m up to by following me at facebook.com/rkcookjr and/or twitter.com/notgoingpro. You can also become an official fan of Your Kid’s Not Going Pro on Facebook. I’m endlessly fascinating.