The Downside of Playing Sports, and Watching Too

Two good questions from a reader named Harold Laski, who is the medical director of Southside Medical Center in Jacksonville, Fla.:

As a physician treating injured sportsmen, I understand (or at least I think that I do), the reasons that people get into sports. But two things have bothered me. First the fact that many parents encourage their children, even at amazingly young ages, to concentrate on sports, so that when they get “big” they can earn lots of money as a famous sports person — usually, at least the ones I am in contact with, as football players. But from my limited standpoint, this actually does more harm than good, in that many children continue on through high school hoping to be that great sports hero, a hope that never comes to fruition. There simply are not enough places in sports that really pay compared to the number of people (students) who concentrate on the sports to the detriment of their education and end up with nothing. Has any study been done to show the true effect of the “sports craze” here and abroad?


I don’t know of any such research into the opportunity cost of youth sports, but would appreciate hearing from anyone who does. I asked sports economist J.C. Bradbury if he had any insight. He wasn’t familiar with any specific research on the topic, but he replied:

My thought is that there is very little negative impact to watching or participating in youth sports. College athletes tend to graduate at a higher rate than the general population. And the demographic of people who watch sports tend to be college graduates with high incomes. Colleges also use athletics to attract good students who like to watch sports.

What I do know is that:

  • Youth-sports injuries pose a significant medical cost.
  • One researcher has suggested that youth sports can lead to a rise in crime (video treatment here).
  • In Freakonomics, we compared young drug dealers to young athletes in that they both are engaged in a tournament model wherein they envision themselves getting to the top of the pyramid whereas, in fact, their actual chances of doing so are punishingly small.
  • I am constantly surprised at how many of my kids’ friends spend most or all of their weekends on travel sports teams. I would have loved to play baseball every weekend of my life when I was a kid, and to force my family to build their schedule around it, but that didn’t happen. That said, I have a daughter who, at 9, is a good and devoted figure skater, so yes, I’m becoming one of those bleary-eyed rink dads you might see some mornings.
  • The question of opportunity cost is, to me, the most interesting one. I have heard of some parents who had a strong inclination to send their kids to a religious school but decided against it because they worried their religious studies would cut into their acquisition of secular knowledge. The same concern could obviously be applied to the hours and hours spent on youth sports.

Here is Harold’s second question:

Secondly, spectator sports. What is the effect on people and their financial status due to the amount of time that they spend talking about and watching spectator sports? I know that many live vicariously through the sports figures and derive a certain pleasure from this just as they do from watching movies. But what is the effect on society from the vast amount of people who are spectators rather than players. Obviously playing adds a certain amount of exercise, something that many of us lack. However, does the amount of time that people spend watching sports improve or worsen their economic situation?

Again, I know of no such research. Please let us know if you do. But I like the question. The downsides to watching a lot of sports seems evident. What about the upsides? You could argue that watching sports is a good social lubricant, it’s relaxing, that it can lead to BIRGer binges (that’s Basking in Reflected Glory).

And I’d take Harold’s question one degree further: what about time spent playing fantasy sports? I had always stayed away from them in part because I feared they would be addictive. This year, my 10-year-old son talked me into playing fantasy football. Turned out my fear was 100 percent legitimate. The only good news is that, in a 10-player league, I made it to the finals. Who was my co-finalist? My son. The winner? Solomon. Now that‘s an experience you can’t buy.

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  1. RB says:

    I sat next to a very intelligent man on a flight to Japan a few years ago. I guess one would call him a big hitter in the game of life. He had an interesting view of TV….” When you watch tv you are watching someone else make their living.” Same could be said for the great american (sic) pastime of fox and bud.

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  2. trader n says:

    The same argument could be made about academia. More PhDs then there are spots for.

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  3. Kevin in McLean, VA says:

    Seems like the “negative impact” occurs when a kid is born to parents who think that the child’s best (or even only) opportunity for advancement is through athletics or the entertainment industry. Have any studies been done to correlate achievement in athletics or entertainment with the athlete’s/entertainer’s socio-economic status as a child? Anectdotally it seems like the economically disadvantaged tend to focus on these activities rather than academics.

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  4. Pete says:

    “Colleges also use athletics to attract good students who like to watch sports”

    Yes, they try this but it doesn’t work. There is very little evidence that the millions (billions add across all universities) spent on sports works to increase the quality of the student body. Maybe in rare cases, the quantity, but not the quality

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  5. Shane says:

    I guess watching sports can be a community-strengthening activity.

    Regarding there being few places at the top of sports, I’ve observed something similar in pop music. Of course very few musicians become pop stars, yet those stars are constantly on television and radio, perhaps giving children an incorrect impression of their likely chances of success.

    However the growth of reality tv talent shows like American Idol may challenge that ideas somewhat, because American Idol shows the LOSERS as well as the winners. Now viewers can see deluded dreamers being insulted by Simon Cowell – perhaps that has a positive effect in dissuading them from putting all their eggs in the pop star basket!

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  6. Tom says:

    “College athletes tend to graduate at a higher rate than the general population.”

    Ask any college student about the classes or the teacher biases towards atheletes at their colleges. It is all a joke.

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  7. NZ says:

    There are fuzzy lines, though. I work behind-the-scenes in sports, doing video work and operating the instant replay machines which the officials use to review calls. I notice that a lot of the other people involved in similar roles (media people, stat keepers, game clock operators, administrators, and even ushers/security) come from athletic backgrounds. They are the ones who participated in sports, and perhaps once aspired to be professional athletes, but realized they wouldn’t make the cut and settled for a more realistic role in sports administration (many of them attained a degree by that name in college) and its associated jobs. So, the number of “available spots” is larger than you might think, just many of the spots are not as glorious.

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  8. M. Steve says:

    When you listen to a classical sonata on NPR, you are listening to other people make their living. It’s called entertainment and leisure. There are infinite choices in the modern world, and that’s a great thing. I’d much rather watch an Eagles game than subsistence farm. Some people are just more pompous about their leisure time pursuits than others.

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