Youth Sports Are a Secret Society With 45 Million Members
Youth sports have evolved from a simple extracurricular into what is, sociologically speaking, a society within our society. UC Riverside sociology professor Dr. Scott Brooks, who studies how kids and adults interact on courts, diamonds, and fields, says that the most remarkable part of the shift in attitudes towards athletics is how little is known about its effects. Researchers – and fans, for that matter – know that young American athletes experience racism, classism, and an amped up version of capitalism, but they don’t know how it changes the way competitors think and behave.
When he’s not serving as UC Riverside’s Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education, Brooks can often be found on a basketball court. He’s been coaching youth basketball for as long as he’s been studying what he calls the “sports-industrial complex.” He’s part of that machine, but he worries the culture around games is creating pressures kids can’t handle. Specifically, coaches are struggling to treat players on increasingly diverse teams fairly.
In the wake of North Carolina’s NCAA Tournament win, Fatherly spoke with Dr. Brooks about the society hidden right in front of the fans.
You’re an expert on the social aspects of youth sports, specifically basketball. Just to get some context up front, how do modern grade school, high school, and college leagues compare to those that existed a few decades ago?
Yes, we’ve always had this idea of sports being this positive, pro-social activity for kids, where they learn teamwork, self-reliance, how to deal with adversity. But, increasingly, our society has made it more about winning. There are higher stakes in terms of money. There’s not only celebrity fame for the adults, the elite, and the professional athletes, but we even have celebrity fame for young athletes. A lot of that started with LeBron because people knew his name as a high school player before he even made it to the professional ranks.
With this increased focus, we can think of our kids as potentially having this wonderful future as a professional athlete. We hear that this is a way to get our kids to college, that it helps to make it more affordable.
March Madness is, seen from that angle, a month-long infomercial for a faulty product. But who is really making the money of youth sports?
There are all these ways people are able to make money off parents who want to watch their kids succeed and create new advantages for their children — I call them ‘hooptrepreneurs’. As parents, being that we’re the providers and trying to create opportunities, we’re easy prey for this industry. We’re so involved, it’s so much a part of our lives that we don’t really or aren’t really able to take as critical of look as we should be.
Beyond the potential financial loss incurred by families pursuing an unlucky result — a professional career or a scholarship — how has the society that exists within youth sports been altered by increased competition?
What we have is the possibility for greater stratification. Parents are investing so much in it so it’s about how you make friends, it’s about your hierarchy in your friendship group. Whether you’re making the team holds so much more stake, and is part of the self-esteem and the confidence that we believe helps kids who engage in extra-curricular activities like sports do better academically.
What you end up with is more casualties of this sports-industrial complex. More kids say, ‘I thought that I could get more out of sports, but I had a coach who didn’t believe in me.’ Or, ‘My coach was a yeller and screamer and told me that I was terrible. I invested so much time and energy. My parents were frustrated. We ended up with a bad relationship because my dad wanted it so much, I could care less. I got burnt out.’
And, just to be clear, what are we seeing when we look at college athletes on the verge of going pro? Are these just outliers or are the kids that are using sports to transcend their beginnings? That’s always been part of the narrative.
Since the fifties, we’ve looked for athletes in inner cities. But now that the black middle class is growing, the pool has become so big that coaches now have their pick. They’re taking more kids that they can relate to because you get back to this kind of cultural capital.
What advice do you have for parents who watched the NCAA tournament and thought “I want my kid to do that”?
For me, it’s not about telling kids sports are an unrealistic goal; it’s about telling kids that, if this is something that you are passionate about, then you have to commit to working outside of the games and even outside of the practices. I want parents to help their kids to understand the real process of how somebody becomes good at something. That, for me, is why sports are important. Learning to deal with people and gaining the kind of life skills that will help our children as they advance through life.
The idea of cultural capital is central to your work trying to understand youth sports. Can you explain how it affects locker room society?
Cultural capital is the thing you need to know to get by in whatever particular cultural context you’re in. Depending on where you’re from you may need to be defensive and on guard for everything. You may need to have this bravado and kind of show off and act as though you’re tough and ready to fight. While fighting might be seen as a deviant act or being resistant, it also has a positive currency.
What is the cultural capital and context that these kids come with? When I’m coaching and working with kids, I want to get to know them and where they come from. If they weren’t always able to come to practice, consider what that might be about as opposed to just thinking, ‘Well, this kid doesn’t come to practice, so therefore I’m not going to play him.’ What’s the reason this kid isn’t coming to practice? When you have blanket rules as a coach and you’re coaching kids who might come from different backgrounds, it can create problems for these players.
So how did things get so out of control?
Parents are going to do whatever they can for their kid and capitalists are going to find ways to make money.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.