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.