I’ve participated in, coached, watched, and learned about sports my whole life. I even have a degree in physical education. I’m not denying the beneficial role of sports in our lives. Many of us believe that sports play an integral role in developing fundamental values in our children such as teamwork, commitment, and effort. They build character and keep kids out of trouble. Certainly, participating in sports has its merits.
It’s easy to glorify sports and professional athletes. They dominate the media. Athletes are constantly in the limelight and one who has made it to the professional level is believed to have fulfilled their wildest dream. Ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up, and a professional athlete is one of the most common answers. But underneath the fame and fortune of professional sports, lies corrosion. And this may be affecting children more than we know.
Professional athletes are definitely paid well and yet, according to Sports Illustrated, 78% of NFL players are bankrupt or nearly so just two years after their careers end. The numbers are similar for athletes in other sports. Athletes make money in a flash and aren’t used to managing their high earnings. This is coupled with short careers.
According to Bleacher Report, the average career length of an MLB player is 5.6 years and it’s nearly half of that for an NFL player. Professional sports put a tremendous strain on athletes’ bodies. These injuries can have long term consequences. Multiple concussions, for example, can lead to permanent brain damage.
Professional athletes are constantly dealing with unforgiving media, the consequences of messing up, and the effects of intense travel schedules on family life. Many athletes mix money with friends and family and wind up hurt and broke. The extra attention and pressure to perform can be crushing.
Someone’s ability to jump high and run fast doesn’t qualify them to be a role model. They have mastered certain athletic skills, but few have mastered unselfishness, humility, and other important life skills. Many kids look up to sports stars and imitate their behavior. Unfortunately, some athletes today are improper role models. They exhibit selfish, “it’s all about me” behavior. Just watch their celebrations – how many athletes fist-pump their chests and showboat about themselves? Now go to the local gym and see if any kids playing a pickup game of basketball are following suit. Personally, I would rather see more high-fives with teammates, or Brett Favre-like touchdown celebrations of pure, selfless joy. There are plenty of great role models in sports, but I don’t believe all kids can discern between the good and the bad role models.
The odds of a high school player to play in the NBA is 1 in 11,771. Even though organized youth sports promote physical activity, by the time children reach the age of 15, 70-80% are no longer engaged in a sport. At that point, if they are still playing, they have less than a .6% chance of becoming a professional athlete.
Youth sports aren’t just feeder programs for professional sports. Participating in youth sports can help to improve physical fitness, obtain college scholarships, provide some character development, and teach lifelong lessons.
However, many programs advertise “playing just for fun” on the surface yet they often overemphasize winning. Teams and coaches can also demonize opponents, inadvertently promoting aggression and hostility. Jam-packed sports schedules commonly monopolize parents’ time, leaving little room for relaxation on weekends, holidays, and summers. Schools further glorify sports, where a championship-winning football outshines in every way a championship-winning band. Students can grow up believing that they have to be athletic to be well-liked and successful. Being in choir, band, or Art Club is devalued due to an overemphasis on sports in K-12 schools.
Perhaps we should focus less on competitive youth sports and more on activities that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. This must start with physical education classes. After all, the goal of a quality physical education program is “to develop physically literate individuals who have the knowledge, skills, and confidence to enjoy a lifetime of healthful physical activity” (SHAPE America).
There is so much more to childhood than playing organized sports. We need to help children see that, and foster their development in other areas like music, arts, and the outdoors. We all know the positive impact that sports can have but perhaps it’s time we get real about them. Too often they play a disproportionate role in childhood and can be damaging to children’s self-confidence.
Being a professional athlete is not exactly “the dream” we make it out to be, nor should we be idolizing every professional athlete. Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: Children must receive a truly well-rounded education to become well-rounded adults. Youth sports are a tool that can teach some skills and life lessons, but they shouldn’t be the sole focus of a child’s free time because they aren’t the sole focus of an adult’s.