What’s Lost When Only Rich Kids Play Sports – The Atlantic

Concern about the kids’ sports frenzy often fixates on the costs to children who do too much: the burnout and physical exhaustion, the bodies battered from overuse, the loss of unscheduled free time. But the children who are excluded from that frenzy, most of them from lower-income families, suffer more enduring losses. These children miss out on the scads of positive outcomes that are linked to regular exercise, including longer life expectancies, improved mental and physical health, and better grades in school. As important, they are denied lessons in discipline, teamwork, and resilience—the very qualities that most parents want for their children—which are often taught in athletics. And despite the well-documented advantages of athletics participation, it’s unclear whether the loose coalition of businesses, community organizations, and nonprofits that are working to ensure all children have access to sports have the resources or clout to make it happen.

Lots of factors keep lower-income children from being active. Some sports, like ice hockey, swimming, and golf, require costly facilities just to play. And while sports such as basketball and track might be open to all in theory, parks in low-income areas tend to lack organized activities for kids, which are correlated to park use.

Also pushing poorer kids out is the professionalization of kids’ sports: Time reports that the business of kids’ sports has grown 55 percent since 2010, and is now a $15.3 billion industry. Driving that growth is the perception that a child’s athletic achievement might improve her college prospects, lead to an athletic scholarship, and lend some prestige to the family name. Well-off-enough parents invest in specialized camps, leagues, equipment, and travel teams, while children from families without the financial resources or time—competitive kids’ games are often played across state lines, devouring weekends for parents as well as players—fill out dwindling town leagues. On top of these factors, schools with shrinking budgets are dropping physical education or requiring kids to pay for their school teams. Seventy percent of kids leave sports entirely by age 13.

Paul Kieltyka, the president and CEO of the Summit Area YMCA in New Jersey, has seen the impact of elite-team growth on the humbler sports programs offered by the Y. Except for the Y swim team, where the well-to-do continue to enroll, affluent families are increasingly pulling their children from the Y’s soccer and basketball leagues and placing them in private clubs, according to Kieltyka; he estimates that 10 to 15 kids have left Y teams over the last few years. “Wealthy families will not put their kids in Y programs when there are more and more exclusive clubs available in the area,” he said. Kieltyka also serves as president of the Scotch Plains/Fanwood Youth Lacrosse Association and observes the same income dynamic playing out there. While the town association welcomes all kids in grades three through eight, a majority of club programs in the state now require players to leave their hometown teams and commit to year-round play for the club. “We don’t cut kids; it’s a town league!” Kieltyka said. “The division between our society is only growing worse with these clubs largely choosing to be economically selective.”  

Early sports participation matters because the advantages that come with it can serve as an inoculation against some of life’s unhappier outcomes. Compared to those who don’t play sports, students on high-school teams graduate at higher rates, perform better on tests, secure higher grades, and are more apt to aim for college. Sports participation is also correlated with happier families, better physical and emotional health, and an overall higher quality of life, including less drug and tobacco use in high school.

Girls in particular seem to benefit from athletics: Participation reduces the chances of developing heart disease and breast cancer, cuts rates of unplanned pregnancies, lessens obesity, and boosts body self-esteem. And the advantages extend into adulthood: Four out of five female business executives played sports as kids, and women who go on to play sports in college are 25 percent more likely than those who don’t to develop political aspirations. “Kids who are excluded for socioeconomic reasons are missing out on all of that,” said Mark Hyman, an assistant teaching professor at the George Washington School of Business and the author of Until it Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. “Sports would help them develop more fully as people.”


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