No, Youth Sports Aren’t Being ‘Hijacked’ by the Wealthy

President Donald Trump talks to his daughter and advisor Ivanka Trump as they watch former NFL star Herschel Walker throw a football during the White House Sports and Fitness Day event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

by Christopher Paslay

A rich array of sports programs and college grants are available to any child of any background who wants to take advantage of them.

According to Derek Thompson at The Atlantic, meritocracy is killing high school sports. Not cellphones, or video games, or father absenteeism, but wealthy families hijacking athletics at the expense of the poor. Thompson writes:

If you want to understand how income inequality and opportunity-hoarding by the rich can combine in toxic ways to hurt the less fortunate, you could look in all the usual places—elite colleges, housing policy, internships.

Or you could look at high-school sports.

There is no need to read past these opening lines, as Thompson has given you everything he wants you to take away from his article: America’s rich are so greedy that their “opportunity hoarding” has now tainted even high school sports, killing participation and further disenfranchising the poor.  The fact that participation in high school sports hasn’t declined, and that affluent families do not kill athletics doesn’t seem to concern Thompson in the slightest; he simply contorts reality to fit around his grievance-driven narrative.

“In the 2018–19 school year, the number of kids participating in high-school sports declined for the first time in three decades,” Thompson writes, drawing on information from a recent survey. What Thompson doesn’t mention, of course, is that in the 2017–18 school year, participation in high school sports was at an all-time record high, with 7,980,886 students joining at least one team.  And although the 2018–19 school year was down slightly, it was still the third-highest ever, with 7,937,491 participants.  So when Thompson says meritocracy is killing high school sports, what he means is that there was record participation in high school sports over the past two years.   

“The most obvious reason for the decline of high-school sports is that football, the Friday-night-lit mainstay of the high-school experience, is withering on the vine, likely due to fears about injuries and head trauma,” Thompson goes on to state in his article.  “Many schools cannot field a full team and have resorted to a six-on-six version, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). America’s most popular sport on television could be close to a full-blown crisis.”

Football is “withering on the vine”? Seriously?  

Football is by far the biggest and most popular boys high school sport in America, with 1,006,013 students participating last school year—nearly double that of boys outdoor track, which was second with 605,354 participants.  Similarly, Thompson’s claim that “many schools cannot field a full team and have resorted to a six-on-six version,” is ridiculous.  According to the NFHS, 14,247 high schools still offer 11-player football—which is an increase of 168 from last year; data from the past two years indicates that the average number of boys involved in 11-player football on a per-school basis is a whopping 70.  As for America’s most popular sport on television?  The NFL made over $16 billion in revenue in 2018, far from a “full-blown crisis.”

Although injuries and head trauma have had an impact on participation in high school sports, technology has had an ever bigger impact.  Thompson briefly considers this in his article, but quickly dismisses it, instead turning his focus back on his meritocracy theory.  “Kids from homes earning more than $100,000 are now twice as likely to play a team sport at least once a day as kids from families earning less than $25,000,” he states, citing Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.  But a closer look at “State of Play,” Aspen Institute’s research report analyzing the trends of scholastic sports, shows that family income is only a small component of a very complex issue, and that technology does have a significant impact on sports participation.  

“We need to realize that the youth sports model is being disrupted in the same sense that the newspaper industry, cable TV, books and so many other sectors have been,” states Chris Marinak, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president, who is involved in Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.  “What we need to do is redefine the value proposition and show that sports is a much better experience than digital entertainment for kids because it provides so many benefits from the standpoint of health, social interaction, and leadership skills development.” 

But Thompson downplays such information in the report, choosing to frame sports participation as a social justice issue:

The deeper story is that the weed of American-style meritocracy is strangling the roots of youth sports. As parents have recognized that athletic success can burnish college applications, sports have come to resemble just another pre-professional program, with rising costs, hyper-specialization, and massive opportunity-hoarding among the privileged.

Basically, Thompson argues that specialization in youth sports and obsessive competition in high school sports—where affluent parents remove their children from neighborhood teams in order to get them involved with high profile clubs as a means of gaining college admission—sucks the talent from the general population, thus decimating youth organizations and leaving the poor kids to rot.  This, of course, is nonsense.  The problem facing youth organizations is not a lack of talent produced by rich kids joining clubs, but a lack of participation in sports by communities themselves.  

The breakdown of the nuclear family has had an enormous impact on sports at all levels, especially father absenteeism. Dads don’t need to be rich to teach their sons or daughters how to catch a ball or swing a bat, and they don’t need to be privileged suburbanites to volunteer to coach or assist at practice, or to line the field or help run the scoreboard at games.  

Dads do, however, need to be there.  Tragically, especially in poor and minority communities, dads aren’t there.  Interestingly, as the percentage of African American out-of-wedlock births have drastically gone up during the past several decades (from 24% in 1965 to 77% in 2019), the number of black Major League Baseball players have drastically gone down (from 20% in 1975 to only 7% in 2019).  Which is why Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program has initiated their “Parent Engagement Campaign.”  As mentioned in “State of Play” study:

Project Play 2020 members recognize the need to empower parents as agents of change, from the grassroots up. It’s why Aspen partnered with Target to create the Project Play Check-lists—10 questions parents can ask themselves, their child and local sport providers that will help build an athlete for life. 

The study also called for community involvement, concluding that neighborhood engagement is vital for youth sports participation. Which is why, as noted in the study, President Trump nominated new members for the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, asking Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to develop a national strategy to increase youth sports participation, including developing metrics to gauge participation and physical activity.

As with technology, Thompson refuses to acknowledge the significant impact parents and the community have on high school sports, and how their lack of involvement hurts overall participation.  

To conclude his article, Thompson brings up college sports scholarships, stating: 

You might think most of that scholarship money is going to help kids from poor families who couldn’t otherwise afford college. That’s not the case. In 2010, just 28 percent of Division I basketball players were first-generation college students, meaning they likely came from low-income families. Five years later, that figure has fallen by nine percentage points.

What Thompson doesn’t mention is that rising standards at the NCAA mean many poor kids aren’t academically eligible to accept scholarship offers, and that a growing black middle class—which have the resources and enthusiasm to get their children involved in sports at a young age—put impoverished kids at a disadvantage, too.  

Still, college scholarships, which gave out $3 billion in funds, aren’t the only ticket to an education. Pell grants, which are reserved for low-income college students, serve over 7 million families, and gave nearly $30 billion in aid in 2018—ten times as much as division I & II athletic scholarships combined.          

Meritocracy is not killing high school sports.  Far from it.  A rich array of sports programs and college grants are available to any child of any background who wants to take advantage of them.  The real issue facing high school sports participation is not “opportunity hoarding” by the rich, but a lack of interest and engagement in youth sports by parents and communities.      

Not that Thompson would want to accurately present this information to his readers. That would be called journalism, which would get in the way of his wonderfully deceptive social justice advocacy.      

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