Against Kids' Sports

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When I was in second grade my mom signed me up to play Boys and Girls Club co-ed soccer. The cost, according to my mom’s memory, was around $60, with scholarship available. My team was the kids from my school, and the practices were held in the playground of that school on Tuesday and Thursdays. One coach was the dad of the goalie; another coach was a guy from my church who loved soccer and didn’t have kids yet. We had matching screen-printed shirts that were blue, my favorite color. I mostly played fullback, because it meant less running and I could just hang out with my best friend who was also playing fullback. It was incredibly low-pressure and I still locked myself in the bathroom and refused to come out before my first game.

I eventually did play that game. I also played for the rest of the season, and watched as the enduring themes of youth organizations emerged: my mom got mad that the coaches gave the boys more playing time; various parents were known for providing “better” snacks; all sorts of racist assumptions were thrown at the team that came from the local reservation and played “dirty.” I played on that team until I didn’t want to play anymore, and I was ultimately grateful my mom signed me up and also still made me go to that first game even when I refused. But I am also grateful there weren’t options for anything more than casual play.

This is a piece about the professionalization of children’s sports — and how that professionalization has transformed and degraded the desire to play, the desire to be part of something, even just the desire to move into class-siloed, life-swallowing regimentation. Somewhat ironically, this regimentation is fueled by its hazy promise (or at least a hope) to bypass the American class system and secure a route — through college scholarship, or, less commonly, through actual professional play — to stability.

In this way, professionalized kids’ sports manage to distill the decades’ long hollowing of the middle class and the quietly frantic parenting reactions to that destabilization. Participation is cloaked in the casual language of “fun” and “teamwork” and “we’re just doing it because our kid loves it so much,” justifications that only bolster the broken economic systems that have rendered the route to professionalization so attractive.

I’ll get into the specifics of how and why, but I also want to acknowledge that I’m purposefully framing this as a polemic. You may or may not agree with all of it. But the overarching intention isn’t to make you feel like shit — it’s to make you think.

Because you can make all sorts of caveats about your own experiences with semi-professionalization or your own kids’ attitudes, about the kid down the street who it really worked for, who landed a scholarship and is now a lawyer, about the kid who really came out of her shell when she joined a team. Those stories are real. They are also the stories we tell to justify the system, even as it’s escalated to its current point of truly exorbitant costs, both in terms of money and overall time. Which is just to say: instead of starting this piece looking for exceptions, consider sitting with why you’re so quick to look for them.

Let’s start by trying to define what we’re talking about here. The professionalization of kids’ and teens’ sports includes travel teams that cost thousands upon thousands of dollars, not even including the cost of hotels and the transportation itself — but it is also the pipeline towards professionalization, which sometimes begins before many kids have even started kindergarten. It is the idea that if you kids aren’t in an organized league by then, they are “behind” — and might not catch up to their peers.

It is a travel team for kids starting at age seven. It is specialized coaches for different positions. It is mandatory three to four mandatory practices a week, plus at least two days of competition. It is the very use of ‘elite’ to describe a child. It is national rankings for those same children. It is the expectation of $4000-$6000 a year spent for each kid in hockey, upwards of $3700 for baseball, and between $2500 and $6000 for soccer. It is private and almost always for-profit, even if those profit margins are slim. It is the specifics of this system but it is also the generalized idea that this is an okay way to organize a childhood.

And it is contagious and self-justifying. Once kids in one area have elite teams, then kids in nearby areas will need them in order to “compete.” Once the funnel is in place, it becomes the only way to “get better,” or, in many cases, it is conceived of as the only way to even participate in the sport. (If your kid is not physically or developmentally ready to start playing before 5th grade? Out of luck.)

It is a headless, sprawling organization. There is no one person propping up the system, but millions, all deeply invested in their individual corners, their individual leagues, their individual successes and hopes and promises. That’s why it’s so incredibly difficult to dismantle, or even change its direction.

It does not tolerate dissent. Some quiet bitching about costs and travel times, that’s fine. But to question the system itself is to exclude yourself or your children from its spoils: from the networking, from the potential promise, from, it is often said, their friends, the ultimate cruelty. Once a child is involved in one of these leagues, and all their friends are in these leagues and their nascent identity is fully enmeshed in it — then of course they’re going to say they love it, will do anything to do it, will hate you if you say no. It’s an incredibly difficult story to shift.

It is a site of bourgeois class reproduction. Like elite college and playdates, professionalized kids sports are an apparatus for bourgeois kids to be with other bourgeois kids, to extract them from their (potentially) less class-siloed public schools, and for people who are not bourgeois to learn how to pantomime it. (I’m using “bourgeois” here to signify upper-middle-class/upper-class but likely still thinks of themselves as “middle class.” Most of these parents went to college, some did not, but all aspire their children to do so.)

Some elite organizations offer scholarships. But for most participants, it’s full-pay or your kids’ supposed future on a payment plan. Your family can either afford this — and is using sports as a means to distinguish future bourgeois college applicants from other bourgeois college applicants, and normalizing the cost because it’s not that much more than you were used to paying for childcare — or they cannot, and have to scrap and put other things on credit cards in order to play along with the guise that it’s “worth it in the end” and that sports are a “great equalizer.”

It is a meritocracy fantasy machine. Few of these kids or their families believe they’re going to become professional athletes. But they do see the (legitimate) value in sports. They believe that hard work is a path to stability — even though most are actually using it as a cheat code. If, today, you get a partial scholarship to Stanford for your sport, it’s ostensibly because you were good at said sport. But maybe it’s also because your family had the time and money and wherewithal to place you in the funnel at the right time and nurture your progress through it. Is this describing the college admissions system in general? Yes, of course — and the sports scholarship component helps sustain that larger meritocracy fantasy machine.

It swallows families — and diminishes those who can’t afford to be swallowed. Over the course of writing the last two books, I’ve talked to a lot of parents who feel they have no time for themselves, no actual leisure, no space to cultivate any skill or hobby that’s unrelated to their job or their role as a caregiver. The interstitials of their life (the time between work and home, or even the long interstitial between Friday and Monday) are wholly dictated by their kids’ schedules and, more specifically, their sports.

It’s practice, practice, game, practice, practice game — one sport flowing into the next and doubling up and expanding with age. Your primary role becomes chauffeur, launderer, snack-provider, which are all, of course, descriptions of parenting. But this is additional, bonus chauffeuring, bonus laundering, and bonus snack-providing on top of the pre-existing parenting demands. As with most things, the most invisible and least gratifying components of this labor fall to women (Yes, a lot of Dads do coach teams early on — but that often stops at the professionalization level).

And what if your family’s schedule is unbendable to the sports’ needs? What if it’s too much labor? You either get spit out or try to bend until someone, usually a parent, breaks — which heightens divisions and resentment between parents and kids, who are often ill-equipped to understand why their parent can’t orient their lives around their activity when there’s so much evidence of other parents who’ve made it work.

Soccer Mom, Hockey Mom, Basketball Dad, Baseball Dad — these are supposedly derisive monikers, but what they really are is descriptive. You are a parent to a sport, and that sport — not your child — dictates the rhythms of your day, your week, your year, your life. And god forbid you’re a kid who’s opted out in a family that’s opted in. To be the kid who doesn’t play is always to be the kid fighting for what little oxygen is left in the room once the sport has swallowed it. Parents can try and fight this dynamic but the sport is a more jealous and vindictive and demanding and expensive sibling than the sibling who’s actually playing it.

If you feel that the core of your own identify has evaporated, there are many reasons for that, and one of them might be the blinding sun of professionalized kids’ athletics.

It sucks the joy from the thing. I’m not talking about competition as a general idea. Competing can be fun and nourishing; it can teach you how to collaborate and push yourself and learn about your body. I’m talking about intense, seemingly high-stakes competitions that position winning as the ultimate, all-encompassing goal — for kids under the age of 8, under the age of 13, under the age of 17. It weds success to identity, and, by extension, loss becomes a high-stakes individual failure. It is ego-corroding when the ego is in its most essential state of development — and in so many cases, alienates the player from whatever joy first drew them to the sport. Ask a millennial or a Gen-Zer about the sport they played in high school, particularly one they played in hopes of getting a scholarship in college, and chances are high they will tell you about a sport they haven’t played in years.

It destroys future hobbies. If a thing is only worth doing if you’re doing it at a highly competitive level that will potentially open doors for you — then most things aren’t worth doing. There’s a cliché gripe about Millennials and participation trophies but this ethos — cultivating intense, high-level skill building in order to advance and achieve stability — is a far more common generational experience. Taking time for things we like to do simply because we like to do them are at the heart of actual leisure, of rest and restoration. That life skill is rarely taught and often discouraged as laziness or even selfish. The framework of professionalization (and its fraternal twin, commodification) prevails.

It can also be a story of quiet coercion — with lifelong ramifications when it comes to body autonomy and image. Coercion is a tricky word here, and it's like everything about parenting and kids, it's very difficult to disentangle the expectations set for kids and how kids internalize and then come to desire those same expectations. But think back to your own childhood: if someone told you that the only way you could possibly access success was to excel at a sport, then think of what, depending on your personality, you would be compelled to do or ignore in order to succeed at that sport.

To put it more plainly: there's a reason that eating disorders are more prevalent in athletes than the general population. There's also a reason that #MeToo has brought abuse in athletic circles to light. There's a reason, of course, that it took as long as it did for Larry Nassar to be reported in the gymnastics community: these kids have never been trained to think of their bodies as their own.

A lack of bodily autonomy and agency is what happens when bodies became vehicles for advancement — and eating disorders, and tolerance of disordered messaging about those bodies, is what happens when a body's needs are sublimated to favor its "success."

This isn’t just about traditional sports. It’s about the professionalization of so many kids’ activities, some old-school, with long histories of professionalization (music, dance, livestock, debate) and some newer (robotics, spelling bees, video games, filmmaking, skateboarding, LEGO engineering, local theater, model United Nations, American Ninja Warrior). It’s about the increasingly normative and deeply exclusionary idea that to participate in an activity, you need coaching, and competition, and leagues and expensive uniforms, and that the ultimate goal of any of that activity is not fun or bonding or even the play itself, but a foothold, any foothold, in the scramble towards career and financial stability. We have lost sight of the idea that play is how we become people, and replaced it with the anxious understanding that play is how we become careers.

Which is why these leagues remain the provenance of the scrambling and aspiring bourgeois. Truly rich people still play sports as a form of actual leisure, because their futures do not depend on them. That doesn’t mean they’re not still good or competitive; it just changes the dynamic. Prince Harry is decent at polo because he has played a lot of polo, not because his parents were terrified as to how they could afford college if he didn’t. The devotion to professionalization is a symptom of class instability — and the ever-strengthening understanding that there’s no guarantee that the next generation will match, let alone exceed, your own class position. Everyone’s terrified of falling off the class ladder. It was the case in the early 1980s, when so many of these professionalization funnels started to expand, and the fear has metastasized alongside the leagues.

People are scrambling for a foothold when a safety net would be a much better investment. One way to look at the the professionalization of kids’ sports is like a poker game. A lot of people pay in, but most of them are “dead money.” Often, it’s already clear the money is going to. There are a lot of suckers, which is a hard and shitty thing to say about kids and families but it’s also the truth. It’s a form of gambling — and not the good kind — the kind rooted in desperation.

And you know what would ultimately cost a lot less — in time, in money, in psychological burden — than all of these leagues and coaches and travel? Collectively re-knitting the social safety net and reforming college education.

I’m not kidding; I really do think most bourgeois families pay more on the formalized versions of these activities + college than whatever they’d ultimately pay if the tax rate was increased (particularly on the rich!) to reform our current systems. But that would require funneling the money into helping more than just our own families, and creating a system that would benefit everyone, and revising the stories we tell ourselves about why we organize our lives the way we do and to what end. It would require, in other words, realizing that the best way to make things easier for ourselves would be to make things easier for everyone.

Kids should play sports if they want — and kids should be encouraged to fall in love and revel in those sports. But all the parts of sports that are good and nourishing, that build character and camaraderie — those existed before the games themselves were soured into their most utilitarian, extractive form, and they can exist afterwards, too. You can love sports, you can love some parts of your own participation in kids’ sports, you can cherish the time you’ve spent with your kids as part of this process, and you can still say that the system has twisted itself and its participants into a true dystopia.

The current iteration is also too far gone to reform: you can’t scholarship-offer your way out of this. Because it’s not about the individual leagues, it’s the entire system. It will swallow or diminish all attempts at reform, because the true reform is to actual shrink and de-escalate the stakes and scope — and if there’s anything Americans don’t know how to do, it’s pull the fuck back.

That’s not to say there aren’t solutions: new, low-stakes ways of re-introducing ourselves and future generations to sports and activities in general, ways to de-structure play and reanimate it, to de-silo in-and-out-of-school activities. But I also know that when you’re a parent with a kid currently in the system, even if it’s so hard for your family, it’s still really difficult to talk about the larger scope when all they see is the game and what it seems, in that moment, to provide them. I also recognize that this is particularly difficult in this moment, when outdoor activities provide one of the few ‘safe’ activities for kids still ineligible for vaccination.

But if you hate the system, and you reject what it represents, and you are against the hierarchies and societal organization it perpetuates, and already regret how it affected yourself or how it may eventually affect your own kids — you also have to reckon with how your participation, even your reluctant, conflicted participation, sustains it. Does that mean quitting altogether, or deciding your future family will opt out? Who knows. But it does mean that you start thinking about what’s a stake in leaving — and, more importantly, what’s a stake in staying.

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