American sports could not have the emotional attraction that so many fans feel without the prized underdog.
The most popular figures in sports often have a David and Goliath feel. Tiger Woods overcame physical ailments, one of the largest social scandals in American history, and mental yips to complete arguably the greatest comeback in sports history. LeBron James is known as the kid from Akron, Ohio. Americans love the idea that someone can reach the pinnacle from any background. That is the American Dream and sports are considered to be no different. But is athletic success blind to the economic status of the individual or are the rags to riches tales in sports just a feel-good story based upon misconceptions?
Unfortunately, they are just feel-good stories.
Outcomes in sports are closely tied to the economic background of a given participant. With the wealth gap in society only growing larger due to a winner-take-all environment, the gap in athletic outcomes based upon economic background is growing farther apart too.
To fully understand the impact economic status has on athletic outcomes at the professional and collegiate level, it is important to start at the beginning of a child’s development to understand the earliest barriers that stop a kid from playing sports.
The biggest predictor of sport participation is parents’ income. Seven out of 10 children with family incomes over $100,000 play sports compared to just three out of 10 children whose family earns less than $25,000 per year, according to the Aspen Institute. Families who earn less than $50,000 per year cited cost as the top reason that their kids don’t participate in sports. And it is only getting worse from there. Public schools are increasingly charging for sports due to budget cuts.
Wealth also determines when children begin to play sports, and early participation is crucial to outcomes. Many college athletes “began specializing in their sports at what experts consider a very early age,” according to an NCAA study. That early age? Before the age of 12.
Children with an average household income of $100,000 enter organized sports on average at 6.3 years old. For families with an average household income of $35,000 the age increases to 8.1 years old, says the Aspen Institute.
If costs go up, it only makes sense that families with tight budgets have to make the tough decision to cut sports out of their lives lowering the participation for lower-income athletes. But for the athletes who continue on playing, they are met with yet another barrier, the quality of the athletic experience.
Travel teams have become a staple of youth athletics as it brings the best players around the country at any given sport together. But as one can imagine that becomes costly. On average across all sports, not just travel teams, parents spend $196 per sport, per person, per year on travel. Families are paying more for travel than for equipment, private lessons, registration fees and camps. For travel teams, parents spend an average of $2,266 per child on sports participation, via the Aspen Institute. Fifty-seven percent of Americans don’t have enough cash to pay an unexpected $500 expense. So how would they spend the same amount, if not more, on athletics for their children?
Cost plays a role in access to the quality of coaching. As one would likely surmise, the best coaches will gravitate to the positions that have the highest quality athletes and the most funding. Those organizations are likely comprised of more higher-income children because someone has to fund it. When coaches received training in skills and communicating effectively with kids, only five percent of kids decided not to play the sport again compared to 26 percent when playing under an untrained coach, per the Aspen Institute. Overall, four of 10 youth coaches say they have not received training in motivational techniques, physical conditioning, safety needs, and concussion management. While the Aspen Institute does not break down the coaching data by economic opportunity of the kids the coach is coaching, nearly half of youth coaches have an annual household income of $100,000 or more.
The discrepancies in athletic outcomes for children have worked its way up into the college level. Fewer than one in seven Division 1 college athletes are now first-generation students and the number is only declining, per the Undefeated’s Tom Farrey. While the first-generation statistic is not actively measuring wealth, it is an indicator of socioeconomic opportunity. First-generation students are more likely to come from economically disadvantaged families where a college education could be the difference in making it to the middle class. From 2010 to 2015, the number of first-generation student-athletes dropped by 1.9 percent. In men’s basketball, the number fell by about 400 students or nine percent, per Farrey.
“And the bottom line — that only 14.2 percent of all Division 1 athletes are first gens — most likely overstates their presence. The NCAA did not survey athletes in 10 smaller sports, several of which can be expensive to play and thus less accessible to families that lack resources: equestrian, fencing, men’s gymnastics, bowling, rifle, rugby, sailing, sand volleyball, skiing and squash,” said Farrey.
The numbers would look much worse if historically-black colleges were cut from the equation. In 2015, 32.1 percent of college athletes at historically black colleges were first-generation students compared to just 15.7 percent at other schools. As such, the basketball market has adjusted to the new college landscape.
“In basketball hotbeds such as Washington, D.C., it’s now common for little kids to have private trainers. One couple I visited, Tanzi and Reggie West, has three trainers for their fifth-grade son, Landry, and a clear sense of how they expect the process to unfold:
“Get a starting spot on top AAU or club team, leading to an invitation from a parochial middle school with a good athletic reputation, leading to an invitation from a sponsored elite team on the summer circuit and a scholarship to a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference school, both of which can serve as fast tracks to Division 1 hoops,” via Farrey.
The issues with the Wests’ plan should be transparent. It is too costly for most Americans. And it isn’t just a problem in the United States. The wealth gap in sports is easily identifiable across the globe.
The top five sporting countries in the world, regardless of size and based upon a Soccernomics ranking method, are the United States (3), Germany (6), Russia (7), Great Britain (10), and Brazil (9). Soccernomics then took into account the population of the countries and found the top five countries by capita: Norway (11), Luxembourg (5), New Zealand (48), Germany (27) and Australia (29). The numbers in the parenthesis for the first set of countries are its GDP ranking in the world. For the second set of countries, it is its GDP per capita ranking in the world from the CIA Factbook.
The richest countries are by far doing the best athletically. All of the top five countries in the world, not taking into account per capita, are in the top 10 of the world’s GDP rankings.
If one looks at the UN’s human development index, which takes into account life expectancy, literacy, education and living standards, seven of the nine aforementioned countries are in the top 21 of the UN’s 2018 list. Russia sits at 49 while Brazil, an outlier due to its production of elite soccer players, sits at 79.
Following the trend, there is no secret to why China burst onto the athletic scene once its economy took off at a historic rate. South Africa, the only African country to score in the Soccernomics table, has mainly white athletes representing its country despite the demographic making up eight percent of the population. If that eight percent was treated as its own country, it would have finished third on the per capita tables. Iceland, a team that has vastly outperformed soccer expectations based upon its population of around 350,000 people, invested heavily in athletics at schools. Six-year-olds who play soccer are coached by qualified and paid coaches unlike the many unqualified volunteers or parents seen in America.
The correlation between athletic success, wealth and well-being is strong. For instance, an athlete who doesn’t receive proper nutrition because he/she lives in a poorer environment will have a tougher time becoming as strong, tall, and quick. In addition, he/she becomes more likely at catching an illness, a possible inhibitor of growth. Poorer areas also have an inferior education. Athletes need a level of intelligence on the field and the proper preparation for your body and mind to perform at the highest level. If an athlete does not have the financial resources to get the proper training, guidance and nutrition, it will be at a major disadvantage.
Nonetheless, it is not impossible to make it professionally with limited resources but usually, there is an exceptional circumstance present. LeBron James lacked the financial means, but how many other humans weigh 250 pounds, are 6-foot-8 and can jump so high their head eclipses the rim? Anyone like that will likely find themselves in the NBA as well. James also matured early earning himself a national spotlight as a teenager and subsequently was given the resources to succeed by others as an investment. Tiger Woods came from humble beginnings, but he was on the national stage before he turned five-years-old. Lionel Messi made his Barcelona debut at 15 years old. For every Messi, Woods, and James, there are millions of people like Yewri Guillén who had the talent but failed to make it professionally since he died because he didn’t have $1,300. Even if the financial resources are there, racial undertones can too be an insurmountable impediment just as it is in swimming.
Sports do not serve as the absolute meritocracy. A kid without any outlier traits and the proper economic resources will struggle to get the opportunity to just play sports for fun. And as a player develops, the financial barriers only grow as travel and coaching become vital. The pursuit of college scholarships has been tilted to favor the wealthy. Athletics do not serve as an equal opportunity for low-income kids to triumph over economically-advantaged kids to earn a scholarship, a shot at the pros and a valuable education. Instead, sports have become an avenue for wealthy families to get their kids into a better college. That does not sound like the American Dream.