By Ken Reed
Educational, physical, emotional and spiritual developmental goals for youth and high school sports programs are increasingly being brushed aside by win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs ethos.
The professionalization of youth sports organizations, our ‘little leagues,’ is appalling. Adults – parents and coaches – treat youth sports like the big-time pro and college versions. Kids quickly learn from adults in their lives that winning is the priority, whether that ethic is verbalized or not.
Sadly, the professionalization of youth sports has resulted in virtually total control by adults today. Spontaneous play – where kids form teams, make up the rules and design their own plays, etc. – has been replaced by adult-controlled youth sports, in which ‘grownups’ create the leagues, teams, make the rules, design and call the plays, etc. – often for their entertainment and ego gratification and, even worse, sometimes simply to realize a profit.
It’s not uncommon for youth football teams, made up of 10-and-11-year-olds, to have six coaches, including offensive and defensive co-ordinators. Young people become nothing more than performers in a youth sports entertainment spectacle under the authoritarian oversight of the head coach.
Veteran American sports journalist Robert Lipsyte describes the all-too-common youth sports environment this way:
“A million Little Leaguers stand for hours while a criminally obese ‘coach’ drills the joy of sport out of their souls, makes them self-conscious and fearful, teaches them technique over movement, emphasizes dedication, sacrifice, and obedience instead of accomplishment and fun.”
Specialization is another trend in the movement to professionalize our young athletes. Athletes specialize in a single sport at younger and younger ages. Many 10-to-12-year-old hockey, soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball players are pressured by parents and coaches to play competitively in one sport, year-round, in an effort to maximize the young athlete’s development.
This occurs despite quantitative and qualitative research showing that early specialization in one sport is rarely beneficial and often detrimental to an athlete’s overall development.
Research also reveals that kids who specialize in one sport at an early age burn out sooner and suffer more from overuse injuries. Nevertheless, parents are increasingly shipping their kids to specialized trainers for regimens similar to what major college and pro athletes go through.
As the perceived rewards become greater (athletic scholarships, professional sports contracts, Olympic team berths, etc.), parents put more and more time and money into youth sports. Many families, most often middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites, are spending more than $10,000 on club teams, personal training, travel leagues, etc., by the time their child is a senior in high school. It all occurs in the hopes of landing a major college athletic scholarship – an occurrence that’s much more rare than most parents and their children realize.
A disturbing trend at the American high school level is the increasing infiltration of corporations on campuses. These high schools, in search of revenue to support dwindling sports budgets – or simply to keep up with competing schools – have turned to corporate sponsors to fill the bill. Stadiums, gyms, locker rooms and other facilities are plastered with corporate brands, often junk food companies eager to exploit an easily susceptible target audience. All of this occurs while we’re in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic.
Where has this win-at-all-costs and profit-at-all-costs model of youth sports led us?
Studies show that 80 per cent of American children drop out of sports completely between the ages of 12 and 16.
The bottom line is we’re using a youth sports model that fails to build a lifetime love of sports participation and physical fitness.
— Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #32 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Prolific Author Joe Posnanski Joins the Show – Posnanski is one of America’s best sportswriters and has twice been named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors. We chat about his new book, “Why We Love Baseball,” his new Substack newsletter called Joe Blogs, and we cover topics including how baseball treats its fans, MLB’s numerous rule changes this past season, how the sport can become more fan-friendly, the greatness of Negro Leagues champion Buck O’Neil, and much more.
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Episode #31 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Foul Ball Safety Is Still an Important Issue at Ballparks – Our guests are Jordan Skopp, founder of FoulBallSafety.com and Greg Wilkowski, a Chicago based attorney. We discuss the historical problem of foul balls injuring fans and why some teams are still hesitant to put up protective netting in some minor league and college baseball parks.
Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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