Youth Sports: Specialization and Professionalization

Much has been written about the contemporary youth sports scene in the U.S. (Eckstein, 2019, Friedman, 2013; Farrey, 2009; Sokolov, 2008). From injuries, to burnout, to withdrawing from sports altogether (Burden & Dixon, 2013) youth sports are known as a “pay to play system” (Eckstein, 2017) for those that remain. Youth sports are coupled with most college scholarship opportunities for families that can afford it. Some estimates suggest that the cost to participate in youth sports requires an additional at $1,300 to $9,300 per year and those funds are needed for early specialization that includes fees, equipment, and private coaching (Duncan & Mumane, 2016; see also Thompson, 2018). Youth sports have even sprouted a new segment of the travel industry. Tournaments and family vacations have blended into what in the tourism industry is now known as ‘toumacation.’ This segment of the travel industry accounts for $9 billion in youth sports tourism for elite “select” or “travel” teams (Cook, 2018; Warren 2017). These family resources for specialized training combined with travel for youth sports brings estimates for the total youth sports industry to $17 billion in 2018 (Thompson, 2018).

Much of this investment is the pursuit of a college scholarship and this sports system is also exploited by those families with the wealth to afford the cost of preparing for an athletic scholarship offer. Many of the children in organized youth sports come from families with parents making $75,000 or more, who can afford the expenses of youth sports (McCleery & Solomon, 2019.) In 2018, athletics scholarships were distributed to 150,000 athletes in the NCAA’s Division I and Division II and were estimated at $2.9 billion (NCAA Scholarship Website).

The system of youth sports cultivates highly professionalized youth experiences before college. Young athletes in the United States today begin playing sports at a high level earlier than any previous generation. A child showing promise for specific skills in their recreational or local league is offered opportunities for select or travel teams and more sophisticated training. Yet, offering sports earlier does not result in fast track on the path to a college scholarship. Basic motor skills don’t develop sooner, just by enrolling in ‘Little Kickers’ soccer or Pee Wee football. Physical and neural development necessary for playing sports develop through specific stages, with some critical phases in the toddler years and again in late childhood around ages 10—12. Early demonstration of basic motor skills or agility does not predict future elite performance. Early skills in agility, balance, or coordination need time and development that combines these skills with the physical maturation in strength and size required for elite athletic performance. Specializing too early, rather than participating in a diversified sport experience, jeopardizes future elite performance by making them vulnerable to delays or problems with their physical, social, and emotional development (Burden & Dixon, 2013).

Far too often, basic motor skills that come easily to young children are taken as a predictor of exceptional performance and interest nearly a decade into their future. Youth sports with its enthusiastic coaches and families with the resources lead to unhealthy early specialization (Coakley, 2011). There is little evidence that intense training and early specialization before puberty' lead to elite level athletic status (Jayanthis, Pinkham, Dugas, Patrie, & LaBella, 2013). Early specialization before 11 in girls and age 12 in boys is often accompanied by burnout, injury, and narrowly cast identity development. Although it is not recommended to specialize in a single sport before age 15 or 16, it is rare in the youth sports system for kids or families to wait. However, there is strong evidence for delaying sport specialization. When asked when they thought it was possible to become an Olympian, former Olympians responses varied, by sport, but many were over the age of 16 (Snyder, 2014).

Still, many parents, either unaware or unconcerned about these developmental milestones, are in pursuit of elite level training at a young age that will result in a college admission or a college sports career. “As soon as some children enter second or third grade, their parents scramble to place them on youth travel teams, which will set them up for middle-school travel teams, which will set them up for high-school athletic excellence, which will make them more competitive for admissions and scholarships at select colleges” (Thompson, 2018). In the Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, Shulman and Bowen (2001) point to the changes in higher education and American society that fostered these beliefs. As early as the middle 1960s, college applications grew as the college student enrollments grew. Career advancement increasingly became dependent on a college education. The pool of applicants in admissions grew, and college admissions became more selective at the same time that men’s college sports were expanding and athletic programs began recruiting and offering scholarships is sports other than football and basketball (Thelin, 2000). Applications for highly selective colleges were increasingly drawn from a national pool of applicants assuming that advantages will accrue after graduating from a highly ranked college (Shulman & Bowen, 2001). Admissions offices shifted from choosing a ‘well-rounded’ student to a ‘well-rounded’ class and admissions offices were more willing to admit exceptional athletes. By the early 1990s, youth sport specialization and admission to selective colleges became part of the same system.

In The Hidden Curriculum of College Athletic Recruitment, Kirsten Hextrum details how higher education privileges mostly white, mostly middle-class athletes in the youth sports system to access Division I athletics college sports opportunities (2018). The ways in which the contemporary pathway to a college sports roster spot is suited to middle- and upper-class families in pursuit of athletic scholarships, for men and women, was underscored in the Varsity Blues scandal in the spring of 2019. According to an article in the Atlantic, “this scholarship jackpot gives some children from lower-income families a chance to attend schools they might not otherwise afford. But it also sends a clear message to richer parents looking to enhance their kids’ eventual application: Sports matter” (Thompson, 2018).

The ways in which parents and students have been using inequitable strategies to gain access to college are well known among scholars in higher education. Prospective students from high-income families are socialized for college preparation early. Families use college admissions as a way to preserve their economic and social positionality through higher education. Institutions offer a counternarrative of merit, but admissions policies, financial aid, and enrollment management often have policies that favor low-achieving, high income applicants over high achieving, low-income students (Hillman & Crespin-Trujillo, 2017).

Using education as a way for individual advancement is a well-established value in American society. Highly selective public institutions and elite private colleges have a long history of giving preferences to many types of students—including those whose parents attended the school, underrepresented students, and athletes (Espenshade, Chung, and Walling, 2004; Shulman & Bowen, 2001). Sports are an important proxy for merit in how preferences are weighed and admissions offers allocated. The ways that pay-to-play youth sports and the hidden curriculum of athletics recruiting leverage many of the tactics in higher education enrollment privileges some groups more than others.

College Athletes: Professionalized Amateurs

Amateur. Amateurism. Amateur status. The Principle of Amateurism. These phrases all have formal definitions or informal meanings. When used as an adjective, amateur can mean unskilled, ungifted, unaccomplished; as a noun it means apprentice, beginner, novice. In the context of sports, amateur and amateurism means unpaid or unpaid pursuits (Google Dictionary). Amateur status in college sports is much more about an agreement—the athletes agree to avoid several specific activities with professional teams and accepting compensation that the governing body, whether it be the NJGAA, NAIA, or the NCAA, has designated as violating amateur status. There is some variation between the governing associations, but athletes must typically avoid these activities before they begin college, and amateur status must be declared and certified at the outset. The Principle of Amateurism is an NCAA construct and more clearly delineated as one of The 16 Principles for Conduct of Intercollegiate Athletics. Principle 9 states,

Student-athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.

(NCAA, n.d.)

None of these formal or informal definitions characterize what it takes to become a college athlete or many of their college experiences as an athlete. Amateur status prohibits some key activities, but from community colleges, to the Association of Christian College Athletics, to the students who compete for schools in Big Ten or SEC, college athletes today earn a spot on a roster or receive an athletics scholarship because of their exceptional athletic talents and accomplishments. Novices or beginners are rarely offered a chance to play or receive athletic aid.

Today, amateurism functions in economic terms, but is implicated and deeply rooted in an ideology with a long history in higher education and college sports. The ideals of amateurism began as a British construct, but quickly became part of the American educational and national discourse over sports. The word amateur comes from the French language meaning a ‘lover of and was taken up British nobility who were playing sports as a pastime. Amateurs were known for their autocratic and elitist practices. Amateurism was also known for its exclusionary intent to distance themselves from the “day-laboring masses” (Hruby, 2012).

Amateurism was imported into U.S. colleges and universities early, when the purpose of higher education was still based on the colonial college ideal of educating the elites (Ingrassia, 2012; Sack & Staurowsky, 1998). The small academies and colleges easily adopted amateurism just as college football was forming. College sports leverage amateurism with its deep sociohistorical constructs, tethering the exclusionary practices of colleges and universities to the economic practices that position athletes as elite hobbyists, not the skilled accomplished athletes in pursuit of athletic excellence. Amateurism narratives leverage educational ideals in tandem with the elite systems of youth sports to propel students to college athlete status. Once in college, many of the professionalized demands that require skilled athletes are also set against ideologies of amateurism and educational ideals.

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