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. Ian Kemmish says:

    I’d question whether the parents do very much pushing at all. As you observe, many children will happily spend all of their time playing both casual and organised sport, to the detriment of many other things. At least with pushy parents, there is some structure, some feedback, and if the financial impact gets too great, some scaling back of the fantasies.

    Over here, we have soccer academies (a bit like stage school), run by the big FA teams, where promising youngsters go. I think children who try and fail to get into those will at least get an early reality check.

    I’m amazed you didn’t mention The X-Factor, though. Sometimes it seems every teenager on the planet not only thinks they’re going to win it, but that they’re going to be the first person ever to launch a career lasting more than six months on the back of it….

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  2. Tyler says:

    I’d bet the biggest success stories breed a lot of the overly-encouraging parents. Tiger Woods, at least until a couple years ago, was seen as a model son with a fantastic relationship with his father, who instructed him and inspired him towards his world-changing success. In actuality, he was an overbearing, aggressive father whose son ended up far more screwed up than any of us thought. Whether his upbringing had a causal relationship with his current social problems is debatable, but the fact that his life is a model on which fathers everywhere should push their sons is definitely questionable.

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  3. RB says:

    Having been in and around the very competitive DC-area high school sports scene in depth for a few years, a couple of observations:

    J.C. Bradbury comments on college athletes, but what about the kids who aren’t good enough to make a college team (or, worse, who don’t have the grades because they haven’t been studying because they’re too wrapped up in sports). The percentage isn’t as astronomical as the leap to professional sports, but it’s still a long shot (particularly the chances of getting a scholarship).

    And almost all of the kids I saw who were on a college-competitive track in high school spent 365 days a year on one sport, whether it was football weight training, skills tutoring for a team sport, getting coaching at “the club” for gymnastics, tennis, etc., or playing on club teams outside of the school year. That’s a significant factor in the risk of injury, as well as burnout. I’m sure there are studies looking at injuries in one-sport athletes vs. those who play each in its season.

    And don’t take my word for this as a problem. Wayne Gretzky, for instance, has spoken out against the Canadian youth hockey machine, saying kids need to get outside in the summer and play something away from the rink.

    Youth sports are great for kids like Frosted Flakes are part of a nutritious breakfast; a little goes a long way.

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  4. cameron plommer says:

    I agree that there is a significant amount of time wasted by watching sports. But, playing sports is a different question. I personally have learned many lessons from sport, which I’ve written about before: http://ow.ly/3SyEA

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  5. Aaron says:

    It seems pretty ludicrous to believe that all kids choosing to play sports even up through the collegiate level are expecting attain a professional career in their chosen sport and therefore are putting time into effort into a futile endeavor… While this is surely true for a certain percentage, that number is likely vanishingly small compared to those who play for what could be deemed a non-monetized good…. you know, for fun?

    How about the health benefits of regular physical activity?

    The Social benefits of team play?

    As for watching sports…

    You mention the very few available professional athlete positions, but I would argue that at the top of all fields there is a very small number of positions. So, for the average person, what is a better allocation of their time?

    Striving 24/7 for the possibility of achieving what is ultimately a highly unlikely outcome, or instead investing that time in doing something they enjoy, i.e. watching sports.

    Seems that in both the playing and the watching people are acting in a rational manner.

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  6. TN says:

    There are plenty of positive side-effects that come with participating in sports. Sure, an avid footballer or runner may lose an hour or so a day practicing their sport, but plenty of studies have shown the cognitive edge fitter people have over their sedentary counterparts (faster reaction times, better decision-making, improved memory) not to mention of course, improved mental and physical wellbeing. Think of the awful costs of depression and obesity

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  7. Chris says:

    As an employeer, I like candidates who have been involved in youth sports – particularly team sports which help grow social skills, and hopefully teach people to win with humility and lose with grace.

    If they have achieved good college grades too, this must come from either a high level of natural intelligence or the ability to prioritise between their college work and their sports pursuits – both good business traits

    Good sports-people learn to keep winning and losing in perspective… Unfortunately it’s the pushy parents trying to re-live their own (usually failed) sports careers through their kids who are the problem here – Luckily we don’t have to employ them too.

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  8. Margaux says:

    While there is a downside to an excessive amount of spectating and playing fantasy sports, these are simply ways to socialize and engage with friends. I do not look at these things as living vicariously through others, but rather as a bond that brings people together and creates conversation. To your point, there needs to be a balance.

    On the other hand, I think that playing sports is a huge part of character development. From my own experience, it has taught me life lessons that go far beyond the playing field – communication, team work, and an understanding of what it means to work hard and pursue a goal.

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