There’s a story that didn’t make it into Linda Flanagan’s book, but it’s so appalling she has to tell me about it. It’s about a family in her town whose son was on the “A” team at the local soccer club one year but placed on the “B” team the next. He was humiliated; his parents were livid. So livid that the father, who worked in a higher position at the same firm as the coach, had the coach transferred overseas.
It sounds outlandish enough to be fiction, and yet for those familiar with the excesses of youth sports today, it may not be surprising. Flanagan’s book, “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania are Ruining Kids’ Sports — and Why It Matters,” is filled with anecdotes and statistics about the state of youth sports and how it got this way. She covers not just the misbehaviors but also the more mundane way sports can skew families’ priorities. And she doesn’t spare herself from the critique. She cringes, for example, over memories of times when she noticed her own ego swelling from her son Paul’s basketball success. And she laments time and money wasted on camps and tournaments that Paul himself didn’t care about.
“I couldn’t figure out why Paul’s athleticism seemed to matter so much to me, and why kids’ sports animated everyone in my orbit. But I felt that pull from his earliest days,” writes Flanagan. “While no one was looking, when we grown-ups were busy building our own lives and tending our own families, kids’ sports took a turn. These shifts became apparent to me while watching my son play, and became unavoidable the longer I coached.”
Flanagan said there are three broad sociological developments since the 1970s that led to this situation. First is money. As public investment in community recreation programs declined, commercial ventures filled in the void — and then some. Thanks to elite clubs, private trainers, state-of-the-art tournament facilities and all the companies selling the latest gear, youth sports is now a multibillion-dollar, “fabulously profitable industry,” as Flanagan put it.
Then there are broader changes in American cultural views about childhood and increasing trends toward individualism. Both have placed mounting pressure on parents to fixate on their children and on preparing them for a competitive adult world. Third, as admission to elite colleges and universities have become more competitive, families have looked to sports for an entry point.