Smartphones conveniently take the blame for just about every other societal ill, from rising anxiety to declining sex. But Farrey assured me that screen culture is not the culprit here. What’s telling, he said, is that the children of high-income parents are playing as much as ever. Kids from homes earning more than $100,000 are now twice as likely to play a team sport at least once a day as kids from families earning less than $25,000.
The deeper story is that the weed of American-style meritocracy is strangling the roots of youth sports. As parents have recognized that athletic success can burnish college applications, sports have come to resemble just another pre-professional program, with rising costs, hyper-specialization, and massive opportunity-hoarding among the privileged.
Before kids enter high school, they tend to participate in youth sports leagues, which have become one big pay-to-play machine. It’s now common for high-income parents to pull their kids out of the local soccer or baseball leagues and write thousand-dollar checks to join super-teams that travel to play similar kids several counties away. As I wrote last year, it’s not a crime for parents to spend money on their children. But as travel teams hoard talented (and, typically, high-income) kids, they leave behind desiccated local leagues with fewer resources and fewer players. As a result, many low-income children lose the sports habit (or never gain it to begin with), and simply stop playing altogether by the time they get to high school.
Another crucial factor is the rise in sports specialization. Once again, it might seem harmless that ambitious parents and coaches want talented kids to pick a sport and focus on it. But the frenzy around early specialization might be misplaced. A 2015 paper from Harvard concluded that specialization—defined as at least one year of intensive training in a single sport that requires quitting other activities—increased risks of “injury and burnout.” In July, ESPN published a two-part story on specialization in basketball and its correlation with injuries and emotional exhaustion. One coach likened the overwork of young athletes to “an epidemic.”
What’s more, it’s simple math that specialization means fewer kids per high-school sports team. A teenager who plays three sports counts as three distinct participants in the NFHS data. So the decline in participants partly reflects the fact that students who, 20 years ago, played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring are now just focusing entirely on, say, basketball.
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