- Intercollegiate sports are another area where American colleges seed family life with an arms-race logic. Tweet This
- Over the last 30 years, [the clubs and leagues] have come to serve the perceived interests of parents who see commitment to a club sport as a means to a separate end: college. Tweet This
- This is an unfortunate way to design the athletic fates of children—to hang them on a choice parents make when [they] are in second grade, a choice that, in turn, hangs on questions of fit between institutions and families that have little do with playing sports. Tweet This
When our two daughters were passing through kindergarten and first grade, my wife Juliet and I pretended not to know that their friends were joining soccer teams. Juliet played no sports growing up and doesn’t watch them now, and so there was no counterweight to her sense of youth sports as an adult hassle. On the other hand, I’m a huge soccer fan who played basketball and baseball through high school. I loved playing sports, and I loved being an athlete, but I’d seen the formless mayhem of kiddie soccer at nearby parks. I didn’t think my girls were missing much. And I was happy to agree with my wife on this major issue of modern parenting. I didn’t want the hassle either.
Besides, playing soccer didn’t seem to be leaving much of an impression on their friends. Our girls never brought it up, which we took to mean their friends weren’t recommending it, if they were even mentioning it.
It happened differently with our son, our youngest child. We snuck him past Under-6 (U6) soccer using the same methods of evasion and silence we’d used with his sisters, but by the beginning of first grade, he knew his friends were all playing soccer, and he wanted in on it, too. This was fine. It was just one game on Saturdays and maybe an occasional Wednesday practice. And he was a skinny little guy who, before this soccer thing came up, had shown little interest or aptitude in sports. He wouldn’t be very good, I figured, and he wouldn’t like it, and we could end our sports involvement not long after we’d begun.
Except he was good, as everyone watching those four-on-four, no-goalie games could see. He dribbled around his opponents in swift and tidy right-angles, a linkage of L-shapes that often went from one end of the little pitch to the other end. He scored in almost every game, sometimes as many as four or five goals. How could I explain this? We went outside and kicked a soccer ball around sometimes, but I was in no way drilling or coaching him. Maybe it was the hours of soccer I watched every week, my household veneration of the Barcelona genius Lionel Messi. Maybe, at a deeper level of brain and nerve and leg muscle, it was linked to the weirdly impressive dance moves he often did. No one else in the house could dance like that.
Whatever explained his weekly triumphs, I was enjoying them with an almost unseemly intensity. Sometimes, though, I’d find my thoughts hovering unhappily at the meta level: Shoot. Now I have to care. I didn’t think I’d have to care. I’d already made that pact with my wife: No needless logistical hassles. And I’d turned this marital modus vivendi into a sort of principle. There was something wrong with the more serious forms of youth sports. I knew this from parent friends whose slightly older kids were playing competitive soccer. The driving obligations they complained about were incomprehensible. We’re supposed to exchange our happy family weekends at home for mandatory car-trips to tournaments 100 to 200 miles away?
But now I was facing precisely this question because during my son’s second year in U8 soccer, when he was still seven years old, the organization that ran his league announced tryouts for its competitive U9 teams. He was as good a candidate for competitive soccer as I’d seen in any of his games, and this seemed like a crucible of sort, a moment of decision. What should we do?
I won’t fake any narrative drama. Juliet and I kept our agreement. We didn’t sign him up for the tryouts. Everything we were learning about competitive soccer confirmed our hostility—weekly practices on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday coinciding with both rush hour and dinner hour; games every weekend; the threat of regular tournament schleps looming over the whole deal; the prospect of doing all this for almost the whole year and paying nearly $3,000 for the privilege. There was no way. He was in second grade.
The question of whether a kid plays a sport is generally decided by whether the family has the money and willingness to serve the demanding system of club sports, which, in turn, functions as part of the malignant system of American higher education.
Our decision was made, and I felt good about it, but I didn’t feel great about it. As a seven-year-old, my talented son was playing the most committed, immersive, serious soccer he’d probably ever play. After that, in his world of grade school boys, serious soccer interest would channel through the few kids whose parents put them on competitive teams, and the rest would either quit playing altogether or keep on for one or two more years in the larkish version of youth soccer called “recreational”. Then they’d quit, too.
This is an unfortunate way to design the athletic fates of children—to hang them on a choice parents make when those kids are in second grade, a choice that, in turn, hangs on questions of fit between institutions and families that have little do with the playing of sports.
It also shows an ironic predicament in American family life. Families with athletic kids encounter the system of youth sports as a sort of fait accompli, a single blunt choice of take-it-or-leave-it that, in both the timing it imposes and the burdens it entails, is a good setup for pretty much no one. The irony is that this system expresses, in the form of a sprawling network of clubs and leagues and the competing organizations that govern them, the aggregate choices of well-off, highly-motivated American parents.
The root of this irony, the cause of the predicament it captures, is that youth sports have come to be about something besides sports. The clubs and leagues exist, nominally, to facilitate the sporting play of young athletes, but, over the last 30 years, they have come to serve the perceived interests of those athletes’ parents, who see commitment to a club sport as a means to a separate end. This end, of course, is college—either an athletic scholarship or preferred admission to a desirable school as a “recruited athlete.”
I’m not saying that all or even most sports parents join competitive clubs in pursuit of a college bonus. Almost all of them, I’d guess, confront the in-or-out choice in the same rueful attitude I did. They choose “in” because their kid just wants to play the sport in a serious, rather than larkish, way. Once they’re in the system, the idea of college functions as vague justification, both retroactive and speculative, for the heavy toll in time and money they’re already paying. But the longer they stay in, the more specific and persuasive this idea of college becomes.
The fact that their sporting involvement serves this outside goal sends several competitive mechanisms into a high rev. Parents compete with each other for this valuable reward. The clubs and leagues compete with each other to be the most reliable means to that reward. Clubs satisfy the competitive interests of parents, ironically, by demanding deeper commitments from them. Parents further those interests, in their own way, by meeting this demand, being generally agreeable in serving the clubs.
The result is an intimate functional embrace of family and institution. By degrees, a sequence of increasing thresholds, the inner workings of the family are converted into functions of the club. The competitive youth soccer club operates at a level of organizational complexity that recalls its counterparts in pro leagues, except the plane tickets and chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons, and the massive amounts of driving aren’t provided for by the club organization. They’re provided for by parents. This is what I mean when I invoke the irony of the American system of club sports. It expresses the outsized agency of American parents, their ability to pour money and effort and ingenuity into a system until it is a marvel of complexity and sophistication, which, then, limits their choices and controls their lives.
This competitive system exists in its particular nature because of another competitive system, the elaborate contest of image and prestige among America’s colleges and universities. That is, intercollegiate sports are another area where, as an effect of their competition with each other, American colleges seed family life with an arms-race logic. With sports, as with the moral tests of “holistic admissions,” colleges induce families to bid against each other for special consideration from the admissions department. As the importance of a college degree has grown over the last 30 years, the effects of these arrangements have spread, and their perceived stakes have intensified. Now, the question of whether a kid plays a sport is generally decided by whether the family has the money and willingness to serve the demanding system of club sports, which, in turn, functions as part of the malignant system of American higher education.
Matt Feeney is a writer and the author of “Little Platoons: A defense of family in a competitive age” (Basic Books: March 2021).