So how did we get to this point?
In other words, in the 1960s and 1970s, kids played sports after school or on the weekends pretty much on their own. Ask anybody today over the age of 50, and they’ll regale you with fond memories of how they would play from sun-up to sun-down playing ball….that there were never any parents watching these pick-up games….that there were never any refs or umps….that there were no league standings….and most of all, the kids played merely because it was just fun.
Travel teams hadn’t been invented yet. Kids had heard about college athletic scholarships, but had no real idea beyond that. You played a sport according to the season, e.g. football or soccer in the fall, basketball or hockey in the winter, and baseball or track-and-field in the spring. Nobody played one sport all year round.
As noted, travel teams didn’t exist then. Nor did you ever hear of a kid burning-out on a sport. Overuse specialization injuries? That concept wouldn’t have meant anything to anybody. And most of all, kids were, in general, in better physical shape than our children because video games and computers didn’t exist yet.
So what happened?
There are lots of theories. Here’s mine:
As the television networks became more competitive for more live programming, sports became a top priority. The league owners, being smart business people, began to ask for more and more for the rights to televise their games. With more revenue pouring in, the search for better, faster, and stronger athletes began to trickle down to the colleges, most notably football and basketball.
Then the colleges began to realize that if they could put forth top-flight athletic programs, they could generate lots of TV revenue as well as have proud alumni pour in donations.
Suddenly, athletic scholarships became prize possessions. And for the select few, being signed to a pro contract was indeed like winning the lottery. Pro athletes went from having decent salaries in the 1970s where they had to get part-time jobs in the off-season to now making millions.
All of this transition was not lost on parents. They began to think that if my kid is a star on his or her high school team, maybe – just maybe – my child might be the next Derek Jeter or Mia Hamm. And as a caring parent, I need to do what I can – spend what I can – to give my youngster every opportunity to reach their potential. That translates into playing for a travel team all year round, specialized coaching, summer camps, and so on.
Priorities became re-arranged. What’s the best age for my kid to specialize in a sport? How do I find the best personal coach for her? What are the best showcases to be seen? And on and on. Notably, one of the priorities that dropped off the list was “having fun.”
So where do we go from here? For starters, I don’t see any let up with the obsession that parents have for their kids and sports. I, for one, still find it unfathomable when I read that a pro player has signed for $60 million or more. I mean, I can just can’t seem to wrap my head around playing a sport I love, and making that kind of money.
And I do think that so long as that kind of financial dream is out there, parents will continue to do whatever they can to give their kid a chance to earn that kind of payday.
It’s almost as though the mentality is: “Look, if my kid can be good enough to play pro and make millions playing sports, we’ll worry about his having fun later on in life – once his playing days are over.”
That just seems like backward thinking. But sadly, I think that’s where we are these days.