For years, stories about how much money rich, and even middle-class, parents spend on their kids’ athletic activities have been a popular staple of media coverage. Articles about parents paying coaches and investing in top-of-the-line equipment for children have taken on a tone of censure, implying that the spending is giving well-off kids a competitive edge while pricing others out of the market. In a society increasingly obsessed with the notion of racial or economic privilege, these tales have inevitably led to concern that somehow rich kids get a decisive edge in one area long dominated by lower-income kids—pro sports. The naïve assumption that parents can buy their kids an athletic career is exemplified by a recent Wall Street Journal headline: “Wealthy Parents Help Child Athletes Go Pro in Their Own Backyards.”
And yet, despite a trend of increased parental spending on sports that goes back more than 25 years, there’s been no influx of athletes from privileged households into traditionally blue-collar sports. Results from the little research that’s been done in this area are inconsistent, at best, and suggest that little has changed. One study, for instance, looking at the economic background of African-American players in the NBA, found that a greater percentage of players were from middle-income backgrounds than the black population in general, leading the authors to conclude that socio-economic advantages are at work. But the study also found that a majority of black players came from either single-parent families or from families headed by grandparents. Given the massive amount of research on the struggles such kids face—on average, they’re less likely to graduate high school and more likely to face emotional problems—it’s difficult to describe the majority of players in the NBA as coming from “advantaged” backgrounds.
A recent study suggests that disadvantage might be a spur for some pro athletes. The research focused on college football players, separating out those who made it to the NFL. Among African-American players, those from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to become professionals than their better-off counterparts who had played in college but had not been drafted by the league. That prompted the authors to observe that a lack of opportunities for these players outside of sports may make football seem “like the most likely pathway to upward mobility for some.” That’s pretty much been the explanation for why kids from hard-scrabble, lower-income families have dominated some professional sports for decades.
The emergence of so-called pay-to-play, where kids join leagues that employ salaried coaches and administrators, has generated much controversy. Pay-to-play represents a distinct change from years ago, when youth leagues were organized and coached by volunteers, but the shift has less to do with the professionalization of youth sports than with the fact that it’s harder to find volunteer coaches and sports administrators. Busy parents frustrated by some of the shortcomings of all-volunteer leagues—including sporadic scheduling and disorganized practices—have also sometimes found it easier to pay for more predictable, organized experiences.
Controversy over pay-to-play reached a fever pitch last year, after the United States men’s soccer team failed to qualify for the World Cup. Critics urged the U.S. soccer federation to reshape the sport from top to bottom, including doing away with pay-to-play to draw more lower-income young players into the game. The reformers weren’t urging a return to the days of volunteerism, however; rather, they wanted a vast, subsidized system of employing top coaches and allowing kids to play for free. But the president of U.S. Soccer pointed out that such a transformation would cost several hundred million dollars a year. Rather than junking the system already in place for most kids, he and others argued more sensibly for building fields in urban communities and supporting leagues there. The idea that national organizations can transform a sport from the top-down, in defiance of what parents and kids want, is dubious.
That some parents might dream of a professional sports career or athletic scholarship for their kids is not new. Moms and dads reliving their lost glory days vicariously through their children have been a familiar sight on sidelines and in the bleachers for generations. A few might be “investing” to help make that happen, but if so, it’s a harmless way to waste money. The odds of becoming a professional athlete are minuscule, and no parents can buy their kid the talent necessary to make it. Even the odds of winning a college scholarship are far longer than parents realize, and many scholarships are much less lucrative than parents imagine. Given the long odds of winning one, contributing to a tax-free college-savings account is probably a better investment.
On the other hand, parents may simply be spending more on their kids’ sports because they’ve worked hard for their money and want to put it toward something that their kids enjoy doing—and which also happens to be good for them. That used to be an uncontroversial thing to do, but today, nothing is uncontroversial.
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