The Costs (Financial and Emotional) of Youth Sports

The big sports story in Boston this week is of course the World Series. But it's also significant that this week it's not Boston-based parents who are the subject of the bad sports parent story making national headlines. As I've written about before in Boston Magazine, youth sports in Massachusetts tend to be extremely competitive and lead to some ill-behavior. Boston Sports Parents by Zohar Lazar for Boston Magazine

In the tournament showdown in the piece hockey parents took the "prize," so it's no surprise that when a parent got in a fight at a youth sporting event and actually punched a CHILD, it was at a hockey game. A 14-year-old was punched in the face by a 44-year-old chiropractor in Palm Beach County, FL. Dr. Matthew Supran was arrested after also pounding the child's head into the boards. It must be noted that Palm Beach is an affluent area and Supran is obviously educated-- showing that the intense competitive youth culture impacts people even at the higher ends of the class structure.

Earlier this month an article I wrote for The Atlantic on the history of on competitive youth sports helped inspire this NYT's Room for Debate, which provoked some thoughtful responses and comments on how to balance these activities for kids. Of course the focus should be on kids, and not parents. A mix of fun and seriousness seems to be the right mix, but it's hard to get that exactly right.

And, of course, participation in these activities isn't free-- not even close. Last weekend NBC Nightly News did a segment on two baseball playing brothers at IMG Academies and how much their parents pay each year (close to six-figures for *each* of them). As you'll see around 1:43 of this clip, I make an appearance emphasizing how important it is to not just focus on one activity for the health of your child, by which I mean both physically and psychologically.

While this post may seem a bit negative, it is important to remember that there are also many benefits to participation in youth sports, as I wrote about last week for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Human Capital blog (a Foundation that has funded parts of my research). In fact I emphasize that the impact of participation can be so great that we need to work to ensure that *all* children have access to the skills and lessons youth sports help develop, and not just the kids whose parents can invest six-figures and who live in Palm Beach...

The Eight-hour (play) day?

In last week's post about sports injuries a reader commented, "But how do you regulate the number of hours a kid engages in these activities? For better or worse, it's kind of up to the parents, no?"  The answer to this question is, "Yes, but..." It is true that in the US the family is recognized both legally and culturally as the institution with the most control over childhood. However, the state plays an important role in two areas--education and employment-- and it has done so for nearly a century.  The state mandates that children go to school (compulsory education in this country became law in 1918) and not work more than a certain number of hours each week (federal child labor laws passed in 1938), both efforts that came out of Progressive-era politics (along with labor protections like the eight-hour work day, passed in 1916). Time spent in these domains is almost always outside of the family home, subjecting it to regulation by the law and non-relative adults.

Child performers historically faced scrutiny, though they received an exemption in the 1938 child labor laws, and this scrutiny continues today-- especially as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work become more porous (I have written about this issue elsewhere as it relates to reality television shows).  The number of hours kids can be on-set is heavily regulated and monitored by on-set advocates.  Tutors are also provided to help them keep up with their studies.  Earnings are also partially protected, at least until a child turns 18.

Just as the boundaries between entertainment, family, and work have blurred, so have the boundaries between education, work, and play for kids.  I argue that children's afterschool activities should be seen as a new form of child labor (you can read an academic article I wrote on this topic in Childhood), which then subjects participation to regulation by the state, protecting children from overwork, physical injury, or other forms of exploitation.

Knowing there is precedent to regulate children's involvement in activities outside of the family home, what can practically be done? Given the role of the educational system we might think there is some role schools could play. However, many children who are overly involved in a particular activity-- be it chess, academic bees, performing, music, or sports-- are educated outside of the formal school system, as their families opt for homeschooling or special academies (like Spring Creek Academy in Texas or IMG Academies, which I have written about elsewhere).

The onus then falls on those who run afterschool programs. These teachers and coaches would be responsible for proving they are creating a safe environment and that they are certified to run their programs. Currently some small insurance companies that insure sports clubs, gyms, and dance studios fill the void created by the legal radio silence on this issue.

That most athletic coaches and teachers in extracurricular activities often have no formal educational credentials or certifications in their area is deeply problematic.  This remains a stumbling block in legitimating many afterschool activities and should be part of any comprehensive reform of the afterschool hours and how this time should be safely spent.  I will get on my blog soapbox about this particular issue-- which puts children and families at risk in a multitude of ways and hurts those teachers who are superb and dedicated to their students-- about this soon!