Sober Thoughts on Youth Sports

The two articles linked below approach the same subject from two perspectives. The first, published in TIME magazine last September, is about the growing industry that is youth sports and the financial and time commitments parents and kids are willing to commit to their sporting endeavors, usually in hopes of earning elusive college scholarships or even making it to the pros. One of the more preposterous observations made in the article was offered by Travis Dorsch, founding director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University. Dorsch said, “I’ve seen parents spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars pursuing a college scholarship.” The point is obvious. “They could have set it aside for the damn college,” Dorsch says.

The second article, from The Federalist website on November 10, is a satiric look at youth sports as the fastest-growing religion in America. Devotees to “Athletica,” the article claims, with good reason, are willing to commit far more to the practice of their “religion” than are devotees of more traditional religious traditions, such as Christianity. While committed Christians attend service once a week, or sometimes twice, if they go to Wednesday service or attend a Bible study or prayer group, devotees of Athletica think nothing of committing six or even seven days a week to youth sports. This is to say nothing of the differing financial commitments Christians and “Athleticans” have to their devotions.

I wrote an article for the Knoxville New Sentinel about this subject a few years ago. Fr. Stephen Fichter, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Haworth, NJ, surveyed those on his parish rolls who were not attending Mass regularly. To his surprise, he reported that only 7% of these non-attending parishioners were staying away because of some negative experience with the Church, whether that be a bad encounter with a priest or sister, or a matter of Church teaching on which they dissent. Fully two-thirds, however, reported that the reason they didn’t attend Mass was conflict with family commitments, in particular youth sports programs.

I love sports. My two older daughters played sports growing up and my youngest still does. But, this trend is not good.

First, it displays a serious lack of priorities when youth sports gets in the way of worship and a family’s commitment to the faith. What for most youngsters will hopefully be an enjoyable experience of ten or twelve years ought not displace their parent’s commitment to forming them in the faith and raising them in righteousness. If we truly believe the promises of Jesus, then we know that we’re talking about eternity here. Trading a lifetime of commitment to serving and glorifying the Lord and, hopefully, eternity in His kingdom for the sake of ten or twelve years of playing sports is a devil’s bargain, and I don’t use that phrase metaphorically.

Second, the time and financial commitment given to these endeavors rarely result in the fulfillment of the parent’s dreams for their children. Consider that only 2% of youth sports players reach the highest level of college athletics. And, when considering professional sports, the odds are astronomical. There are 750 men on the active players rosters of professional baseball (25 active players on 30 teams). I don’t know the actual number for the U. S., but there are over 3 million kids playing Little League Baseball world wide, and that doesn’t even include the travel teams that are quickly over-taking Little League in dominance. If only half of those 3 million kids are playing in the U. S. (not an unreasonable guesstimate, since the U. S. clearly dominates in world baseball) than the chances of your little tike advancing all the way to the majors is 0.0005%. It’s reasonable to ask if purchasing a $15,000 batting cage for a 10-year old boy is a wise financial investment, considering the other things that money could go toward (like, say, investing in a college fund so your kid’s hopes for college won’t depend on a baseball scholarship in the first place).

Finally, studies are coming out that recommend focusing on one sport too early and too intensely is not only counter-productive because the kids lose interest and enthusiasm, and too often succumb to the great pressures and expectations placed on them, but such could be detrimental to the physical health of children, given the trend toward more frequent injuries for kids who focus on only one sport and who play that sport constantly.

Oh, and one more point. Growing up, my family had few financial resources. The fact that I had the opportunity to play baseball was a joy, even though I wasn’t very good. But, more and more kids from lower economic strata are denied that opportunity because their families are being priced-out of youth sports. Consider that underprivileged kids could benefit most from youth sports, providing them with activities that are positive and directing their energies toward learning lessons that will encourage them to invest in themselves and in their communities. These youth sports programs are shutting out the very kids who could most benefit from them and, in turn, provide the greatest benefit to the larger community.

None of this is to say that youth sports is not a worthy endeavor. Sports teaches many kids valuable lessons and provides some of childhood’s most cherished memories. It is to say that, as Aristotle said centuries ago, moderation is the best path toward personal fulfillment.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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