A Stroll Down Memory Lane:
How Pro Sports Has Changed Parents’ Views of Youth Sports
By Doug Abrams
On October 10, 1962 – fifty years ago this week – I attended my first New York Knicks home game, and I did not even have to take the train from Long Island to Madison Square Garden. I was a sixth grader at Bowling Green School in Westbury, and the game was played a few blocks away in the W. Tresper Clarke High School gymnasium. It was a pre-season exhibition game against the Syracuse Nationals, the team that would become the Philadelphia 76ers the following season.
The Knicks-Nationals game shows how much the National Basketball Association has changed in the past half century. The NBA does not play games in public high school gyms these days, and its teams charge more for admission than that night’s $1.00 tariff!
At Rick Wolff’s prompting, memories of that game also led me to consider how the profound changes in basketball and other major professional sports have changed the way some parents approach their own children’s participation in youth leagues. I think that the connection can be made.
A half century ago, “youth sports” generally meant neighborhood pickup games organized by the youngsters themselves, supplemented by local leagues. In too many places today, “youth sports” means a spiraling arms race fueled by seven-year-old select teams, elementary schoolers cut or warming the bench, expensive private coaches, interstate and regional travel, and seemingly interminable games schedules that can over-extend many children and intrude unduly on family life.
“History is Who We Are”
I understand the disappearance of the largely unstructured sandlot play that prevailed well into the 1960s, and its displacement by organized sports programs that adults create, incorporate, administer, outfit, coach and officiate. This “adultification” of youth sports marks today’s reality and is unlikely to change. Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, however, explains why looking backward in time can yield lessons that help produce a better future. “History,” he says, “is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
Looking backward today might lead some youth sports parents to rethink the unhealthy pressure that they place on themselves and their children, particularly pressure that may stem from the parents’ visions of collegiate athletic scholarships, and sometimes even from their dimmer hopes of professional contracts for their children. In recent years, plenty of parents entertaining these aspirations have asked me how they might help position their 10-year-olds. Many parents remain edgy even as their children get older. Newspapers regularly report about parents who hector their child’s high school coaches, undermine their leadership, and sometimes force their termination for failing to deliver an athletic scholarship.
The Numbers Tell the Story
I don’t recall that attention to collegiate athletic scholarships and pro contracts drove youth sports in the 1960s, but those were the days before the cost of higher education began outpacing inflation nearly every year for decades, and before the most prominent professional athletes began drawing well publicized seven-figure annual salaries. College costs remained within range for wide segments of Americans, and ordinary professional athletes regularly supplemented their income with off-season work on construction, retail sales, and other employment that might prepare for a lifetime of salaried work after sports.
Times have changed. Athletic scholarships can appear more alluring today when, according to CNN, “college costs are spiraling wildly out of control”: “For more than two decades, colleges and universities across the country have been jacking up tuition at a faster rate than costs have risen on any other major product or service — four times faster than the overall inflation rate and faster even than increases in the price of gasoline or health care. . . . The result: After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439% since 1982.”
With collective bargaining and free agency today, the salaries of leading professional athletes have hit the stratosphere. Even adjusting the earlier salary figures to reflect 2012 dollars, today’s numbers are princely sums, even before the lucrative endorsement deals available to the leading players.
In 1960-61, for example, the Los Angeles Lakers’ future Hall-of-Famer Jerry West received a rookie salary of $15,000. In 1977, U.S. News & World Report labeled average annual National Basketball salaries ($126,000) “fantastic.” In the National Basketball Association today, the average player salary is about $5.8 million.
In the National Football League, average annual salaries have increased from about $6,000 in the early 1960s, to about $50,000 in the mid-1970s, to nearly $2 million today. Average annual salaries in the National Hockey League have increased from about $15,000 in the mid-1960s, to $90,000 in the mid-1970s, to more than $2.4 million today.
In 1966, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, two future Hall of Famers and major league baseball’s best pitchers, jointly held out for a month during spring training before signing one-year contract for $125,000 and $110,000 respectively. In 1970, the average major league ballplayer’s salary was about $25,000. The average salary today is about $3.2 million.
Playing the “Youth Sports Lottery”
Parents sometimes impose pressure in a well-meaning effort to help their youth leaguers reach the highest levels, but some parents overlook the harsh sifting process that determines advancement. Professional athletes are so talented that they make their game look deceptively easy, but the odds against a child’s making the pros in any sport are about 12,000-to-one or higher. Two million children participate in competitive gymnastics each year, but only seven or eight participate in the Olympics every four years. Less than 4% of varsity high school football players play college football, and less than 1% of college players win professional contracts. For every 2300 high school senior basketball players, only 40 will play college basketball and only one will play in the NBA.
With odds like these, parents eyeing their children’s entry into Division I collegiate sports and especially the pros might as well play the state lottery. Like adults who see a lottery winner’s smiling face in the newspaper and rush out to buy tickets, parents are sometimes tantalized by media accounts of players like Tiger Woods, Mickey Mantle and Venus and Serena Williams, whose parents pushed them and won the “lottery” when the child made it big. These news accounts are noteworthy precisely because they are so extraordinary, and they do nothing to improve the overwhelming odds. Rational adults would not gamble their own valuable property at such odds, and they should not gamble their child’s fun and fulfillment either. Fun in youth sports is valuable, and it belongs to the child, not the parents.
Sometimes the pressure imposed by parents nowadays is merely to win, as if winning at a tender age is a sure gauge of later proficiency. But more and more parents also push their particularly young children to seek advantage by specializing in one sport. Drawing on medical studies a week ago, sportswriter Michael Arace of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch described the high price that year-round specialization can exact: “Focusing on just one sport is about the worst thing a young athlete can do. It mitigates the developmental benefits that come from playing, it is physically dangerous and, for the vast majority, it is actually a hindrance to their primary athletic pursuit.”
The cruel irony is that with millions of child athletes quitting in frustration by their early teen years once adults take the fun from the game, parental pressure undoubtedly aborts many more collegiate and professional careers than it creates. Some children who quit playing early, before ever developing skills and demonstrating genuine talent, would have stood a better chance of reaching the collegiate or pro ranks with parents who allowed them to engage in natural play as they develop their talents.
Rewards That Money Cannot Buy
Memories of the 1962 Knicks-Nationals basketball game at Clarke High School, and of the face of youth sports in those days, suggest that supportive parents today should turn down the thermostat a bit and spurn the more counterproductive aspects of the “youth sports arms race.” Competitive drives will not (and should not) disappear, but the most enduring rewards of youth sports lie in the players’ physical and emotional growth from competition — rewards that money cannot buy — and not in the pursuit of elusive scholarships or pro contracts.
Even if adult excesses do not drive a child to quit playing prematurely, a youth sports career is fleeting because youngsters pass through adolescence so quickly, emerging only with the memories, good or bad. Desire to win within the rules should energize any player or parent, but I have seen youth leaguers play their best for years, only to feel ultimately that they let down their parents for not reaching higher levels. In a society that places such value on athletic achievement, reliving perceived failure throughout adulthood defeats the mission of youth sports.
[Sources: David C. McCullough Quotes, http://thinkexist.com/quotation/history_is_a_guide_to_navigation_in_perilous/203335.html; Penelope Wang, Is College Still Worth the Price?, http://money.cnn.com/2008/08/20/pf/college/college_price.moneymag/ (Apr. 13, 2009); Jack Bogaczyk, West Knows the Hurt of Losing, Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail, June 3, 2008; Jackson Michael, The Average Salary in Basketball, http://www.ehow.com/about_6507704_average-salary-basketball.html#ixzz291ksHBP4; Jonathan Lister, The Average Salary of a Pro Baseball Player, http://www.ehow.com/info_7758566_average-salary-pro-baseball-player.html; NFL Salary History, http://www.ehow.com/facts_5005953_nfl-salary-history.html; Chris Newton, The Average Salary of an NHL Hockey Player, http://www.ehow.com/info_7858061_average-salary-nhl-hockey-player.html; High-Priced Players: What Inflation is Doing to the World of Sports, U.S. News & World Report, May 16, 1977, p. 53; Douglas E. Abrams, The Challenge Facing Parents and Coaches in Youth Sports: Assuring Children Fun and Equal Opportunity, 8 Villanova Sports & Entertainment Law Journal, vol. 8 (2002); Michael Arace, Single-Sport Youth Athletes Sell Themselves Short, Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, Oct. 6, 2012]