Should we pay Little Leaguers? (from

Second post over at orgtheory— this on compensating players in the Little League World Series.

Did you watch the Little League World Series last month? It’s possible you missed it in the wake of other news stories, like Hurricane Irene.  But this year’s winners (a team from Huntingdon Beach, California) were also overshadowed by coverage of their own game, as the state of competitive youth baseball and whether or not these “unpaid adolescents” were being exploited became the media’s focus.

Sportswriter Dan Wetzel made his case for compensating Little Leaguers in “Pay the Little League World Series Players.”  Wetzel writes: “Not every Little Leaguer, just the ones who play on television, where their innocence is packaged into a commodity. And, no, they shouldn’t make millions or even hundreds of thousands.  They should get something, maybe several hundred per television appearance. If it made people more comfortable that the money went to a college savings fund or maybe into a trust that becomes available when they’re 18 or 21, so be it.”

Any self-respecting economic sociologist, or sociologist of childhood, will immediately think of Viviana Zelizer’s classic Pricing the Priceless Child after reading this quote.  And you will also know that childhood innocence and compensation do not always mix so well.

I’ve written about how we should think of children’s participation in afterschool activities as a form of children’s work.  Afterschool activities can qualify as “work” both because of prizes won and because of the acquisition of cultural capital that will have a pay-off in the longer run.  I’ve also written about child performers, particularly children on reality television shows, and how they are compensated.  Child performers have always occupied a complicated space in child labor debates, partly because their “work” is often constructed as being “educational.” But I’m not aware of any serious scholarship (sociological, economic, or legal) on compensation of child athletes.


In my opinion compensating child athletes may sound logical on some level, but it is a complicated issue that poses a few problems that are likely insurmountable in today’s commodified world.  The most obvious practical complication has to do with NCAA regulations. If we compensate kids they almost certainly lose their NCAA eligibility.  Of course many of these kids won’t go on to play NCAA baseball, but they may play another NCAA sport.  Compensating them without proper protections in place jeopardizes those future opportunities. (Paying NCAA athletes is another issue that has been batted around for some time, though it also has been talked abouta lot more in the past few months).

Second, and even more complicated, is that if we compensate kids in a way consistent with them being classified as workers or performers (and limiting compensation to those who appear on television makes it more likely they would be classified as performers) that would also limit the number of hours they could “work” and the conditions under which they could labor.  This could impact practice times, length of games, and other parts of the sporting experience.

However, I do believe that kids should be compensated and rewarded for their hard work—particularly when it helps adults benefit financially. One model to look at would be the National Spelling Bee (which, incidentally, is now not only broadcast on ESPN, but also live on ABC in the final rounds).  Finalists receive prizes, like an encyclopedia, along with scholarships, bonds, and cash awards.  Other in-kind gifts like computers and trips are also possible (for example the National Geography Bee winner wins a trip to the Galapagos Islands). Perhaps elite child athletes could receive similar types of awards—like specialized training—that could protect them from NCAA violations.

In the meantime they have to settle for hometown parades and a DVD of their television appearances.  What do you think is fair?



  1. I think it makes great sense to make ESPN, which is a hugely profitable television network, use some of their revenue to fund scholarships for the kids. Amateur athletes of all types create a lot of financial value, but they’ll never get to see most of it. The problem is bigger than Little League, of course. College athletes, especially those from the big-money sports, make a lot of profit for their institutions (and for businesses like EA Sports). Part of this boils down to our notion of amateur athletics, which we’ve put on this pedestal based on some 19th Century model of competition that just doesn’t seem to hold in a world of cable television sports.

    At least giving the kids scholarships would put them on the same level as most amateur athletes, who are getting free educations out of it. As a father of a couple of Little Leaguers, I don’t think this form of compensation would affect the kids at all. The probability of making it to the championship is so low and unrealistic for most of these kids that they will never even consider it as they decide how they use their time or calibrate their enjoyment of the game to the incentives around them.

    brayden king

    September 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm Edit

    I should mention as well that many kids are incentived to play– by their parents! Bribery of various forms (cash, video games, Wii or TV time, etc.) is common for practicing, no whining, scoring, etc. Brayden is right that kids likely respond to he incentives around them far more than to a distant incentive that will likely never effect them.

    But “elite” kids (under 18) in various sporting activities (gymnastics, figure skating, dance, Pop Warner, etc.) may think more about material compensation.


    September 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm Edit

    This post made me think of the declining proportion of U.S.-born blacks in Major League Baseball. It’s a troubling trend, especially given baseball’s folk status as the “national pastime” and that one of famous parables of racial integration is Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947.

    I don’t think this puzzle has gotten much of a rigorous look, but most seem to think it’s a problem of supply rather than demand — poor & talented black kids who want to leverage their abilities into social mobility prefer to play football and basketball, which are “money sports” at the collegiate level and have many more scholarships to dole out. And we probably shouldn’t cede all agency to the kids here; parents and coaches might be much more sensitive to the different opportunity structures of different sports.

    I don’t know if it’s possible to discern what effect long-term incentives have for child participation in sports. But I don’t think it’s implausible that introducing them into Little League would have *some* effect on the decisions that parents take, which sports kids choose to play, how much effort coaches put in to preparing them, etc. And I suspect that this effect would be markedly different across class and racial boundaries; e.g., the scholarship at the end of the tunnel might not matter so much for kids of college professors but it might matter a whole lot for kids of janitors.

    Even if it doesn’t, I still think we should scrutinize the practice of tying educational and social mobility to athletic ability. Becoming a college student *as an athlete on scholarship* takes an immense amount of dedication, sacrifice, and talent (even if you win it as a 9-y.o.), while becoming a college student whose education is not subsidized is comparatively much more a function of one’s cultural and economic capital. So we create a zero-sum meritocracy at the bottom of the class structure but a well-lubricated system of social reproduction at the top.

    A better alternative than using revenue to provide scholarships for students who win the LLWBS (especially if incentives are irrelevant) might using/taxing it to shore up urban spaces, buy baseball gear for disadvantaged schools, etc.


    September 8, 2011 at 10:05 am Edit

    Slightly off topic, but note that when we — whether “we” is the ESPN commentators or, evidently, sociologists — are talking about the participants of LL and the LLWS at the elite level, we’re really talking about “boys” and not “kids”. Roughly 50% of the 10-12 year-old population is virtually excluded from Little League and its rewards, symbolic or otherwise, even before the imposition of class-based exclusion.

    I watched more hours of LLWS coverage than I care to admit, and I can count on no fingers the number of girls I saw, other than the obligatory “cute-little-sister-eating-ice-cream” or “cute-little-sister-cheering-on-her-older-brother” shots.


    September 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm Edit

    Great points by both ucgrad and krippendorf.

    Krippendorf– Legally girls can participate in LL. There were several famous court cases, especially in the 1970s. But obviously girls choose other outlets, or softball (which basically has the reverse trend). This year several girls received college baseball scholarships (particularly as pitchers). But, yes, point definitely taken.

    Ucgrad- Just to throw another thought into the mix. Many say it’s hard to get younger kids to stick with baseball when other activities are possible (like soccer, for instance, which you didn’t mention) because baseball requires such a high level of skill. It’s very hard for kids to be patient and develop those skills, which will come with greater hand-eye coordination, when they see other activities where they can “just” run around.


    September 8, 2011 at 2:10 pm Edit

    Or even to play in the Olympics! I’m not 100% sure, but I think baseball must be all male and softball all female in the Olympic games (though softball has recently been dropped, which is especially sad for women’s team athletics).

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