Opinion: Taking the fun out of sports

When I attended Kula Elementary, I was on the basketball team. Before every game, one player from each team had to read a short poem. It began with “Dear Mom and Dad” and explained that, while scholarships may fill their minds, their child was just playing to have fun and try something out. At that time I laughed and in a way refused to read the script. I did not take it seriously because I thought it was a little exaggerated. I did not know that some parents pushed their child to get a scholarship; however, I now have that understanding.

As I reflect on my current experience with sports, I have watched my opinion shift 180 degrees. Focusing on one sport for a child during his adolescence is a massive mistake many parents make. If your child is the next Lebron or Tiger, then there is a compelling case. The problem is that prodigies like those athletes are very rare and almost nonexistent.

Sports are meant to be fun; it is called a game for that reason. Parents and coaches, unfortunately, are trying to squash that concept and use it for profit. Parents are pushing their kids to get college scholarships, and that is not realistic for the majority of student athletes.

In the winter of eighth grade, I began to play football. Before this “experiment,” hesitations had derailed me from starting earlier. They ranged from not wanting to get hurt to “Do I really wanna go down this road?” That fall I finally decided to play, and I was excited. The season played itself out. I didn’t play that much, but I made a lot of progress, and my potential was evident.

Three days after the season ended, another one started for me. I had spring football practice, and I was expected to be the next quarterback of the Spartans offense. I displayed a rare arm for a high schooler, and with no one else on the horizon, I was supposed to be “the guy.”

I loved the game, and that was my only thought at that time. I stopped playing golf (a sport in which I had great potential in as well), took an extended break off of basketball (another game that I was really good at), to devote all my time and energy on football, which was a considerable risk that did not pay off. During summer practice, I came to school five days a week for over a month to get better and learn the offense. I postponed my life for a few months so that I could try to become a great QB.

My coach, whom I greatly respect told me point blank that there’s a great chance I could play college football. He went even further and said I had the potential to play in the NFL. Of course, I didn’t take the second part seriously, and I thought he was a little naive, but I tried to believe him, and in doing so committed almost the entire summer to football. That is a lot for anyone, but it was too much for a 14-year-old kid. Also during that summer, an older and more talented quarterback transferred to Seabury and virtually took over the job. I lost interest in the sport by the end of the season and was happy that it was over, the first sign that my initial hesitation to play the game was proven right.

I completed spring ball again, but by midsummer, I grew tired, and I hated playing the sport. I knew that there was no way that I would play college ball and I wanted to have more free time on my hands. I felt that football was my job and that was one of the more essential things in my life and I had to take it really seriously. At the end, I began to hate it and looking back I have no regrets with quitting. I ended my “career” with 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, and a whole lot of disappointment.

Sports have evolved into for better or for worse depending on a particular point of view. We live in a time where year-round travel team sports have taken over. When the previous generation was my age, they were expected to play football during the fall season, basketball during the winter, and baseball in the spring. Now, most kids focus on one sport and play it as if it is their job.

A recent “Real Sports” episode by HBO sports highlighted the intensity of youth sports and the rising financial commitment a family has to make in order have their son or daughter a member of that sports team. The mini-documentary focused on a family in Northern Virginia who said they are away roughly 30 weekends a year for their son’s baseball team. “It’s so competitive and if you don’t keep up with what everyone else is doing your kid is going to fall behind,” Angie Coe, the interviewee said.

In this past year, sports tourism has grown over 20 percent and is currently a nine billion dollar industry according to the documentary. Families in the past who traveled for leisure now travel for their child’s sports team. In the past decade, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has built two large baseball complexes, which hold 18 baseball fields respectively, and a 1,000 square foot gymnasium for basketball and volleyball.

Westfield Indiana, with a tiny population of just over 37,000, opened a giant sports complex which covered 400 acres. The annual visitors are 750,000 or 20 times the population of the town. The complex holds 31 soccer fields and 26 baseball diamonds. This past July the small town held over 400 sports teams for one weekend ranging from the ages eight to 17.

These are just two examples of towns who are basing their economy primarily on youth sports.
Youth sports are now a business and children who are not the cream of the crop are being left out. A study published by the Washington Post states that participation in athletics from children six to the ages of twelve are down eight percent over the last decade, and children from the low-income house are half as likely to play a team sport than say households with over $100,000 of income yearly.

Unfortunately, sports have lost its key word. When I was younger, and when if we lost a basketball game my coach would say, “It’s just a game.” Today, that has changed. Parents and coaches push their children/athletes to the limits with the hopes of playing college ball.

That narrative has been proven false over and over again.

For male basketball players, there is a three percent chance that they will end up playing college athletics. That counts towards the non-scholarship players also.

I have a first hand view of being told that I had great potential and that I could play college ball only to have it all blown up in my face. I devoted an immense amount of time because I was told by someone I trusted that I could be the “next guy.”

If you are specializing at a sport and you love it, then, yes, keep on playing and enjoying it. But if you are on the other end of the spectrum, take time and ask yourself: Do I really want to do this?

The sports business is at an all-time high, and with no end in sight, expect more and more complexes built in rural areas that could potentially garner the talents of a young superstar. The sad thing is for kids who are not immensely talented will be left in the dust and not given the attention they warrant. The image of youth sports has changed and will continue to evolve. The days of our parents playing football/ volleyball in the fall, basketball/soccer in the winter and golf/baseball/ tennis in the spring are long gone and the focus “specializing” is here and will be for the foreseeable future.