Hang Up And Listen

How Rich Parents Spending Big on Their Kids’ Sports Teams Hurts Lower-Income Families

Boys playing organized soccer on a field.
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On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin spoke with the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson about his piece “American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports.” In that story, Thompson writes, “Declining athletic participation is a prime example of how the choices even benevolent rich households make can hurt poorer families, especially their children.” You can listen to the whole conversation by clicking on the audio player below, and a condensed and edited transcript of their discussion is below.

Josh Levin: Can you explain how declining athletic participation shows that the choices rich households make can hurt poorer families?

Derek Thompson: What appears to be a sort of monotonic story of declining participation turns out to be more like a two-track story where you have slightly rising participation among the rich and quickly declining participation among the poor. There’s been a rise of club and travel sports teams, where a parent will say, “I want little Johnny or little Sally to be really, really great at soccer to get on her varsity team, maybe even get a college scholarship. I’m going to pay several thousand dollars to get her on a travel team. That is going to put her with some of the best coaches, some of the other best players. She’s going to really maybe have a good time on this travel team, build a lot of skills.” But what happens is that as all these parents are essentially taking their children, their resources, and their own time away from the local level, it’s leaving these local towns’ recreation leagues sort of desiccated.

Stefan Fatsis: If participation is still rising in these wealthier communities, the problem to me seems to be the lack of outreach and investment in lower-income communities. We often focus on the inequality of youth sports when we talk about how good we are, as a country, at particular sports. The running conversation in soccer for the last two decades or more has been that we don’t do a good enough job of recruiting and starting leagues in inner cities. We don’t reach lower-income children at a very young age to give them the initial opportunity that wealthier kids have from the jump.

Thompson: I think all of this goes to this really, really big question of “What is the cost of rich people loving their children a lot”? American households right now, if you divide them into five quintiles, the richest quintile spends seven times as much on each child per household than the poorest quintile. The child investment inequality in this country is larger than income inequality. Rich people tend not to have that many children, tend to invest in them a lot, and don’t necessarily think about all the ways in which their investments are relatively zero-sum. When you use a connection to get your kid an internship, that’s probably a slot that’s not going to go to somebody else. If you claim legacy status at some university, that’s a seat that’s going to your child that’s not going to go to some other child.

Fatsis: I’ve have been involved in our local rec soccer league in D.C. for the last dozen years, and I’ve often thought about, “What is my obligation as a wealthier parent?” This league, which serves predominantly higher-income families in predominantly white neighborhoods of Washington, hasn’t done an adequate job of supporting opportunities for kids from disadvantaged families. Yes, they give scholarships to a ton of kids. But should there be some surtax on my registration fee? Should we be paying another 20 or 50 bucks per family to start full leagues that would give kids opportunities? That’s what I’ve lobbied for with our local league.

Levin: Stefan, I’m curious what you think about what Derek mentioned in this piece about what’s going on in Norway. They have a national lottery, they spend the proceeds of that lottery on youth sports, and there are all these rules about how you can’t publish scores of games for teams of kids that are under 13. Are these ideas ones that we should try to emulate?

Fatsis: The problem is scale, right? The principles that Norway or the Netherlands use to develop soccer players, and players in other sports, they’re going to be really hard to transfer here. In Europe, they don’t have a college-based system. They don’t give scholarships to athletes. They don’t compete in the same way that American universities compete. But it’s true that we’ve got some fundamental blockages in the United States about just the way we think about youth sports. At all levels—rec, travel, elite, whatever—it remains a competitive system. There is less emphasis on the joy of play, and there are a lot of screaming 35-year-old dads on the sidelines.

Thompson: I definitely don’t think that the United States can import some Scandinavian model and be suddenly improved across the board. I think that a lot of these things are culturally specific. At the same time, I think that the juxtaposition with Norway here is instructive because my piece about the decline of youth sports isn’t just about youth sports. It’s about how America views success.

In the U.S., we’re very comfortable, whether it’s because of the American dream or the sort of Protestant wealth gospel, of the idea of compounding success—that if you’re really, really good at math, then you immediately get that kid into the accelerated math program as young as possible, and if they’re really good at basketball, get them onto the accelerated program as fast as possible. We should separate those who are seen as excellent as soon as we can to maximize success.

When I look at Norway, and its considerably more collectivist approach to youth participation in sports and youth success in sports, what I see is that that approach hasn’t obviously hurt them. Given that the U.S. clearly has this attitude of accelerated success across the board in many disciplines, it’s just worth asking: Is that necessarily the best way to maximize successful outcomes for many people as a country?