Alex Benedict, Domestic Affairs
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Leveling the Playing Field

By: Alex Benedict

While millions of dollars are pumped into the youth sports industry every year to provide aspiring athletes the best opportunities possible, research shows that individual drive is a better indicator of future athletic success than favorable circumstances.

Club youth sports have become a booming business since the turn of the century, displacing many local recreational initiatives. The requirements to participate in the youth sports industry–specifically the necessary commitment and funds–have become so time consuming that youths’ athletic schedules almost resemble that of professional athletes’. WinterGreen Research, a company that focuses on the industry, estimates that the industry is worth upwards of $15 billion and has grown 55% since 2010.

According to TIME, there is a 2% chance of high school athletes continuing their athletic careers at the top collegiate level. When it comes down to it, the money invested in obtaining an NCAA Division 1 or 2 athletic scholarship in many cases–including club teams, private coaching, and travel expenses–could have likely been saved and put towards a college education instead. 


There are potentially more than 20 million athletes between the ages of 6 and 18 who are specialized in one sport, or only participate year round at an intense level. The American Journal of Sports Medicine (AJSM) reported that youth athletes who participate in their primary sport for more than 8 months of the year are more likely to suffer overuse injuries.

The ASJM attributes this new trend of overspecialization to the “10,000 hours rule,” which attributes future successes to deliberate and constant practice. The rule is not as beneficial as widely believed; it is proven that athletes who play multiple sports at a younger age and then specialize when they get older are more likely to find athletic success in the sport they specialize in. Along with a higher risk of physical injury, research has shown that extremely competitive sports and sport specialization at a young age have additionally put children at a higher risk for depression and burnout. Travis Dorsch, the founding director of the Families and Sport Lab at Utah State University, concluded in his research that the more money a family puts towards their child’s athletic participation, the more pressure their child feels to perform, and the more likely they are to end up disliking the sport. With this being said, not every child or family has the privilege of investing this much money in their sport.

The socioeconomic side

The National Public Radio (NPR) published a survey in 2015 which asked parents of children involved in a competitive youth sport whether or not they wanted their child to advance to a professional level. Only 9% of parents with a college degree said that this was the ultimate goal, compared to 44% of parents with less than a high school degree. According to the study, sports are seen as a way to success for many parents.

In a study published by the Sociology of Sport Journal, there is a strong correlation between household income and youth athletic participation. The study again reinforced the NPR data that claimed that parents with college degrees were more likely to have their child involved in organized sports and physical activities. The study additionally concluded that the correlation between education, income, and childhood athletic participation diminishes as a child developes into their youth stage. With more access to athletic programs provided by schools and community initiatives, socioeconomic status appears to have a less remarkable impact than at the earlier stages of childhood development.

These findings were further supported by a study conducted by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity in an analysis of participation based on social inequality. The study again concluded that the greatest indicators of childhood athletic participation are household income and parental education level. The Journal additionally emphasized that ethnic minority children were generally less likely to participate in organized sports, namely because of their neighborhoods or living circumstances.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative, whose goal is to give every child in the United States the opportunity to play sports, works to reduce inequality as a result of socioeconomic differences in youth participation of organized sports. The organization emphasizes the difficulty for many children to get the opportunity to play an organized sport at a young age based on multiple strong factors. The economic conditions of their schools and local communities are the second contributing factor behind income disparity. As the federal government and in turn local governments continue to cut funding, the likelihood of children in less economically prosperous communities receiving even the option to play a sport will continue to diminish.



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But the greatest factor affecting childhood participation is household income; the Aspen Institute concluded that the number of households that make less than $35,000 per year with a highly involved athletes is 10% less than households that make more than $75,000 with the highly involved athletes. The type of sports these athletes play also greatly depends on household income. For example, of soccer, baseball, football, and basketball, soccer has the least participation in households that make less than $25,000 per year, and the most participation of the four sports in households that make more than $100,000 per year. Overall, youth participation in these four organized sports drastically increases with household income.

It doesn’t matter how you get there

The International Review for Sociology and Sport concluded a similar study in 2016, instead focusing on the makeup of the top 929 NCAA Division 1 football recruits since 2006. Of the 929 recruits, 791 were black and 138 were white. The study’s primary focus was on the socioeconomic background of these top tier athletes and how their athletic and personal upbringings affected their path to the top.

The results were congruent with the other studies on athletic participation based on socioeconomic status. On average, black athletes came from more disadvantaged hometowns, while white athletes came from more privileged hometowns. The data showed that in white hometowns the racial composition was similar to the national average, and within black hometowns diversity was much less prominent. Overall, the study concluded that the top black recruits come from communities that were more socioeconomically disadvantaged with a higher percentage of blacks than the national average, and top white recruits come from communities that were less socioeconomically disadvantaged than the national average.

The study proposes two explanations for this phenomenon. First, opportunities provided to elite athletes from the two respective communities greatly differ. In more privileged communities there are more athletic opportunities present, including the chance to develop in an open environment. On the other hand, in more disadvantaged communities there are less resources and development opportunities present, but sports are used a mode of community formation and elite athletes are met with a high level of support. Second, the Journal attributes the success of these elite athletes to the ability and aspiration they themselves possess.

While the risk of burnout and overuse injury is there for any specialized youth athlete, disadvantaged children often are only able to see their success through the athletic lens. Sports are used as a way to success, and these setbacks are oftentimes not an option. As shown with the NFL data, white, advantaged athletes are disproportionately lower in drafting than black, disadvantaged athletes. Specialization is a privilege for many athletes, but it doesn’t always pay off in the end. If a larger amount of  disadvantaged children had the opportunity to be more involved in organized sports from a younger age, would there be an even greater percentage of these athletes defined as successful? Or does sport specialization not have the positive effects on athletic goals that it claims?


Works Cited:

Allison, R., Adrienne Davis & Raymond Barranco. (2016). A comparison of hometown socioeconomics and demographics for black and white elite football players in the US. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. Retrieved from

Brunt, D. (3 May 2017). Money Has Ruined Youth Sports. TIME. Retrieved from

Gregory, S. (24 August 2017). How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry. TIME. Retrieved from

Post, E., Trigsted, S., Riekena, J., Hetzel, S., McGuine, T., Brooks, M., Bell, D. (13 March 2017) The Association of Sport Specialization and Training Volume With Injury History in Youth Athletes. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Retrieved from

Sagas, M. & George B. Cunningham. (n.d.). Sports Participation Rates among Underserved American Youths. The Aspen Institute. Retrieved from

White, P. & William McTeer. (2012). Socioeconomic Status and Sport Participation at Different Developmental Stages During Childhood and Youth: Multivariate Analyses Using Canadian National Survey Data. Sociology of Sport Journal. Retrieved from

Witjes, A., Wilma Jansen, Selma H Bouthoorn, Niek Pot, Albert Hofman, Vincent W V Jaddoe, & Hein Raat. (2014). Social inequalities in young children’s sports participation and outdoor play. The Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Retrieved from


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