Using Sports To Get Out of Poverty Doesn’t Work When You Have To Be Rich To Play – Forbes
If I may name-drop for moment, a number of years ago I was chatting with Tom Farrey, ESPN reporter and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program, about youth sports issues, which he has covered well, in particular with his essential book of How We Got Here in Youth Sports, “Game On.”
I’m 47, and he’s a few years older than I am but essentially of the same generation, and we agreed on this as one of the biggest changes we saw in attitudes toward youth sports from our childhood: the very much increased emphasis by parents of means to get their children into college or pro sports, rather than assuming only poor kids who had no other options would even try to conceive of such goals.
Since that conversion, if I may speak for Tom Farrey, as writers and sports parents we have only seen this trend increase. And this is borne out in statistics provided by the NCAA in its Goals Study, which examines the youth sports experiences of its college athletes. In 2016, I noted the study’s finding that college athletes tend to start their sporting “careers” early, and specialize in one sport early, usually by the age of 12.
Recently, Farrey had the NCAA break out its numbers some more, and in a probably related note to the early participation and specialization of athletes, found what he called “gentrification” in many college sports, particularly NCAA Division men’s basketball, the previous poster child for opportunities sought by poor kids who appeared to have no other options. Farrey, writing on ESPN’s The Undefeated site, uses gentrification to note the decline of first-generation college students in intercollegiate athletics:
Fewer than 1 in 5 students playing Division 1 hoops, and 1 in 7 in all Division 1 sports, come from families in which neither parent went to college. And their numbers are declining.
Educators call such students “first gens,” or members of the first generation of their family to attend college. It is a closely tracked figure because it’s a key measure of socioeconomic opportunity. First gens are typically from poor and working-class families that have difficulty paying for college without scholarships. For first gen athletes who don’t go onto the pros — the vast majority – an athletic scholarship is their ticket not just to a degree, but also for entry into the middle class. …
Surprisingly, the data revealed that most Division 1 sports experienced steep drops in first gen students [between 2010 and 2015]. The falloff was dramatic even in the sports most associated with tales of uplift: In men’s basketball, the sport that used to have the highest percentage of first gens, the number plummeted by a third in just five years. Women’s basketball experienced a similar drop. Football fell by more than 10 percent. …
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.
In fact, the first-generation athlete percentage in Division I, the highest level, is lower than it is for Division III, which nominally does not award athletic scholarships. How to explain the decline in big-time, first-generation athletes? Farrey explains:
- Rising academic standards at the NCAA and its member colleges.
- The increasing importance and cost of early training to being recruited for Division 1 sports.
- A growing black middle class that can afford the early training and educational advantages that open the door to college sports opportunities.
Points numbers one and three don’t seem like inherently bad things. What’s wrong with students being better prepared academically for college? Certainly, nobody also would — or should — argue that a growing black middle class that can offer greater opportunities to its children is a problem.
Regarding grades, as Farrey explains in his article, the other side of the NCAA tightening academic requirements is that it squeezes out athletes from poorer backgrounds who, with some guidance at the college level, could improve their status and become products students and athletes.