What if … colleges de-emphasized sports?

At the Project Play summit yesterday, we all fretted the state of sports in the USA, as Project Play folks are inclined to do.

The basic problem: “Youth sports” in the USA is less and less about getting out and playing — with all the benefits of being active, being part of a team, etc. — and more and more a means to an end.

Sometimes, the “end” is a pro career or something “shiny,” as Olympic hockey gold medalist Angela Ruggiero put it. She was part of a lively panel that also included NFL punter-turned-entrepreneur Chris Kluwe, who framed the discussion in progressive politics: Maybe if parents felt economically secure and didn’t feel the need to chase scholarships and athletic riches, they’d just let their kids … play.

They’re right, and yet there’s something else at play here. See the picture here?

Whose kids are getting out and playing sports? Right. The rich folks.

“Wait a minute,” you might think. “These are the people who can afford college for their kids, and their kids will generally have a sound financial and educational foundation from which they can pursue a multitude of careers. Why would they be caught up in a chase for scholarships?”

Here’s a twist that has stuck into my head since joining the parenting community (otherwise known as “having kids,” which makes you pay more attention to such things): It’s not necessarily about the scholarship. It’s about getting into one’s chosen college in the first place.

That’s not new. I have a story about puzzling college admissions from my high school, and I’m sure everyone else does, too. But in this technological age, we now get semi-private websites with scattergrams that show us the GPAs and SATs of people who get into School X or School Y. It’s not difficult to spot the athletes.

Division 3 school (no athletic scholarships). Maybe it was a really good essay?

I’ll have to toss in the disclaimer here: I seriously doubt any of my kids will be recruited college athletes. I blame their U-8 soccer coach. Which would be me.

But the point here is this: Sports are seen, with considerable justification, as a way of getting into a good school. Little wonder the Ivy League schools, which don’t offer athletic scholarships, more than hold their own in terms of overall sports performance.

We can argue about whether this emphasis on sports is a good thing for U.S. academic life. The question here: Is it good for sports?

The positives: American colleges promote healthy lifestyles. They build nice facilities for the general student body as well as the student-athletes. It’s the old Greek ideal — classroom in the morning, gymnasium in the afternoon.

The negatives: Youth sports are no longer about the love of the game. They’re about getting ahead and making sure you’re part of the elite. If you’re not, there’s no place for you.

And when you squeeze a sport at the grass roots, it can hurt the elite levels — especially in soccer, where the big problem we all see is a lack of access for lower-income families. No one becomes an elite player if they never have the opportunity to play.

So would we be better off — at the recreational level and the elite level — if youth players could just play without worrying about how their game will affect their chances of getting into Duke, Virginia, Princeton or a good D3 school?

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