In four quarters, nine innings, or 90 minutes of a sports game, viewers are presented with a fierce and enthralling competition that is yet another glorification of the American Dream. When the final buzzer sounds, the clock runs out, and the scores are set, winning players across sports often give speeches aiming to inspire young athletes, saying, “I made it, and if you work hard like I did, anything is possible.” In doing so, they often misinform and mislead their audience.
There are a few major myths surrounding sports in America, the broadest of which being the Great Sport Myth, a term coined by Jay Coakley, professor emeritus of sports sociology at the University of Colorado. In an interview with the Jacket, Coakley explained that this is the belief that sport is pure and good by nature, and so sports participation means sharing in that goodness, leading to development of individuals and communities. The conclusion often drawn from this belief is that there is no need to critically examine sport. While there are clearly health and other benefits tied to being on a team and playing a sport, the longer-term career and education related benefits promised through sports are frequently not actually realized.
The distinction between these two types of benefits is an important one to make. A specific idea connected to the Great Sport Myth is that youth sports are a pipeline out of poverty. It aligns with the mythology of the American Dream, promising a fair opportunity for youth to reach a better life, in this case through sports programs. While the idea of sports being “the way out” is widely accepted, and even romanticized, in the US, it is a harmful myth with inaccuracies at each step of the way.
These inaccuracies begin with initial access to sports programs: in wealthy areas, a lack of government sports programs can be filled by “pay-to-play” youth sports. In low-income areas, if there is no public program, there are no youth sports, and so the idea that youth sports are a viable path for everyone is already negated. In areas where kids do have access to sports, low-income students are six times more likely to drop out due to cost, as found by Next College Student Athlete Sports.
However, families make incredible sacrifices to keep their children in the programs, with the hope that sports will pay off in the long run and lead to college scholarships or a career, perceiving the odds of this to be much higher than they are. In reality, fewer than 2 percent of high school students are offered athletic scholarships, and what many don’t realize is that the vast majority of these scholarships are partial, still leaving too much to cover for many families. What’s more, even when an aspiring athlete does manage to go semi-pro, their career is all of a few short years, often leaving them with no plan and limited savings. Statistically, reaching a full professional career is incredibly unlikely and not a mass solution for kids in poverty.
Coakley calls attention to the fact that “when you add race to this, everything is exacerbated.” The message that sports are their ticket to a better life and that their worth is their athleticism is hammered into low-income youth, particularly young boys of color, whose sports programs — while offering inherent and instant benefits of community, teamwork, and exercise, and an alternative to getting into trouble — rarely connect to networks or non-sport skills that could realistically lead to the long-term upward social mobility promised by society.
“Over recent history, athletes were the only successful role models that [children of color] were exposed to, so that ended up leading them to focus a lot of their attention just on their sports skills,” said Coakley.
Looking at the media, many of the Black faces that kids see are either people who are in trouble, or people who have wildly successful sports careers. This representation, and lack thereof, gives a distorted view of what possibilities exist from a very young age.
These sports programs divert family resources, not only financial but also of time and effort, from paths that have much higher potential to lead to success. However, to assume that other paths are readily available is also a misstep. Low-income kids are trapped in a cycle of mutually reinforcing contradictions that limit their opportunities. When sports are seen as the way out, they distract from other opportunities; sports are seen as the way out because there are no other opportunities; there are no other opportunities provided because sports are seen as the way out. This leaves a question about the value of sport, though imperfect, when it is the only resource provided.
In many situations, while sport does not live up to all its misleading promises, it is also the singular context within which some kids can form meaningful connections with adults. The mentorship style of relationship that may exist provides the stability and support necessary for not only personal development, but social mobility, which relies on connections and “having someone in your corner.” The issue with this is that the majority of sports programs in low-income areas are set up to “keep kids off the streets,” rather than give them more complex tools to succeed. When these mentorship relationships are formed through sports, it is not because they are a guaranteed part of the program, but rather the chance product of an individual coach or unique circumstance. While sports may help develop skills such as discipline, time management, and leadership, which are all helpful in the workplace, they rarely connect kids with a pathway — through mentorship, an advocate, or otherwise — to those jobs.
According to Coakley, while sports to most low-income kids are a “means of connecting with friends and staying in a group that’s staying out of trouble, that in itself is not gonna be a basis for long-term mobility unless [sports are] tied to education, or job training, or development of some other kind of skills that would be valuable in the job market.”
These other forms of development can be combined with sports to help sports programs not only benefit a child’s health short-term, but also their life in the long-term. However, most low-income programs do not have the resources to be set up this way, as many do not see this as a necessary development in these programs — they believe their success rates are high enough in their current state.
When one athlete does find success, their story is pushed by the media. This kind of presentation of success without the context of all the failures reinforces the myth that sports are the way out of poverty, and has an array of negative effects.
“On an individual level, it simply perpetuates misinformation, and a skewed notion of what will lead to future success,” Coakley said. “But on a systemic level and a structural level, it reproduces the existing system of social class inequality, because for every 1 person that makes it, there’s 99 who don’t, and they’ve spun their wheels going in the wrong direction in the process.”
This is what the coming full circle looks like — it ends up with new kids in the same positions because the systems are set up to reproduce, and the problems they create recreate themselves while people are unaware of the existence of an issue.
Because a central part of the Great Sport Myth is not questioning, and simply accepting that sport is inherently good, it triggers a domino effect of blindly trusting class concepts. In accepting this myth, an even greater idea is accepted: the American Dream, stating that America is a meritocracy where all people have a fair chance to earn what they have. Sport is used as a metaphor for America, spreading the idea that individual grit and determination leads to victory. This promotes the competitive reward systems in our country as fair, and the best way to distribute wealth. In actuality, though the US is founded on the idea that people can create a future for themselves here with hard work, there are lower rates of upward mobility in the US than in many other countries worldwide. And while sports are used to propel separate class concepts and American ideals, it is also blown out of proportion for what it can do alone.
Coakley explained, “We end up perpetuating this notion that sport is somehow gonna save not only individuals but entire societies and communities. ‘It’s gonna lower drug use, it’s gonna lower crime rates, it’s gonna bring people together, it’s gonna eliminate racism, it’s gonna eliminate classism, it’s going to spur development in communities,’ to the point where it gets ridiculous.”
The amount of trust put in the Great Sport Myth leads to investments back in unnecessary aspects of sport — new stadiums, bringing competitions to certain areas, etc., “when that money could have been used in other ways to change the actual structure through which mobility and community development occurs,” Coakley said.
Wealthy people and corporations continue to sponsor and promote sports and the Great Sport Myth because they benefit from those sports furthering competitive reward structures, and its perpetuation of the American Dream. As a result, people accept that they are deserving of their wealth, and that the system that allows it does not need to be altered. This is at the expense of low-income communities, who are prevented from succeeding by the same system, masked by the belief that it provides a fair chance for everyone. The accountability is left on the shoulders of individuals, told that if they are poor, they must be lazy, and that with hard work they can reach a better life, no matter how impossible that really is. In this case this takes the form of the idea that sports success is an achievable way to escape poverty.
The reality is, the experience of sports for someone with money is very different than that of someone without much. Programs for wealthier kids are set up in connection to more resources, and the weight of sports being the “only way to a good future” is not the same for better-off kids playing purely for fun. As a result, in order for low-income communities to truly reap the whole and long-term benefits of sports in a child’s life, we must first begin to “disrupt the Great Sport Myth [and] get people raising questions about it,” said Coakley. “Then we have to understand the relationships, experiences, and identities that need to be developed in connection with sport participation, and how those things can happen in order to change sport so that it lives up to its promises of contributing to development.”
Bottom line: The idea that sports are a viable way out of poverty is a curated mirage serving the wealthy. While young athletes intake the intrinsic benefits of sport, it is not a path likely to lead to long-term success or the connections necessary to achieve that success. This lack of realization around what sports can really provide inhibits the ability to move forward. Parents, educators, coaches, and society as a whole must wake up from our collective American Dream, and realize that it is possible to hold onto the ideal of our country offering opportunities for the hard-working to end up better off than they started, while also acknowledging and addressing the systemic issues stopping many Americans from achieving this right now.
Update: This article was changed for clarity.