Thirteen (parts two and three)
Bob Shaw of the St. Paul Pioneer Press continues his series on why organized sports participation is falling off in Minnesota. In parts two and three, the reasons he gives are shocking only to those who have not intersected in the youth sports world in the last decade or so. Those reasons are: more intense training at early ages, thus discouraging latecomers, and an ever-higher cost in dollars and dedication to participate, thus discouraging anyone without money and parental free time.
I’m hoping that Shaw has another part looking at ideas on what we’re supposed to do about this problem — or even if it is one. It’s unfortunate that a kid who decides at 11 he or she might be interested in basketball might not have a shot at getting on the school team. But if a parent wants to pay extra money for training and coaching earlier in life, and the kid seems to enjoy it, is that automatically a bad thing?
After all, we wouldn’t think twice about a parent who spent buckets of money and time on piano lessons, art instruction or, god forbid, a more academic pursuit. And it’s not just families with money who benefit — if you’re a sports prodigy, you’ll have people lining up to help you, no matter what your income bracket. They just won’t be from your school.
I think why this inequality grates at people regarding sports over anything else is because of some enduring myths we have about it. The Olympic movement and the NCAA are living, breathing entities of the ideal (propagated by elites like modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin and the Ivy League schools that started intercollegiate athletics) that sports was but a side venture, to be done for personal achievement and greater glory, not for money. And there’s the myth of sports as a social and economic equalizer, a place where family background and wealth do not matter.
But sports has become as professionalized at the lowest levels as other extracurricular pursuits, and family background and wealth DO matter. Well, they matter in the sense that when all other things are equal — size, talent, athletic ability — they will win out. If you can play like LeBron, you’re getting ahead no matter what. Thousands of dollars spent on coaching and 85 tournaments a year can’t overcome an inability to grow to be 6-foot-8 and leap out of a gym.
So you’re not going to be able to solve this problem of inequality by demanding that schools fund sports more, or that parents stop sending their kids to high-level coaches. The only way I can see to solve this problem is to redefine what school sports is for, or rather use the definition already in place — student-athlete.
Let the club sports have the elite if they want them. If schools want to increase participation, they should redirect their spending to intramural sports or other activities that encourage participation over outside competition. (Not that intramurals aren’t competitive. Especially when some boys’ girlfriends show up to watch.)
I’m not saying that school sports should be cut completely. But a de-emphasis might be in order if the idea is that you’re getting the best students who want to play, not the kids (or their parents) who feel like they’re on the road to college and professional glory. If an individual school or district doesn’t have the kids to support a program, or even intramurals, then find a way to combine it with other schools or districts if possible. The main message to get to kids is that we want you to play, no matter how much you suck. (I’m just talking like a teenager thinks.)
As a parent, I love intramurals. My kids’ old Catholic school had team sports, but the public school didn’t. But as far as I’m concerned, the intramurals are enough competition and fun at that level, and a lot of kids to get to play sports they might not otherwise in a team sports structure. The pressure is off. In my area, we’re fortunate to have a lot of opportunities through park districts or private programs for team sports, and that’s enough.
After all, the kids who are playing these sports more than likely are not going to make a career out of athletics. Hopefully, they’ll find a sports they’ll enjoy and continue to play just for the hell of it. If you want to know why I feel this way, just look at the name of this site.