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. James says:

    Tell me if I’m missing something, but Dr. Laski’s second question seems absurd. Of course watching sports can be an economic detriment. If Bill Gates had spent a lot more of his time watching basketball, he would’ve had less time to found Microsoft. If we’re talking about brilliant and/or highly motivated people, any time spent on a liesure activity will be less time for work. But most people’s lives are more balanced — 9 to 5, or at least 9 to 7. Why would a person watching sports on TV have any more of an economic effect on him than watching anything else?

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  2. Tony says:

    Without sports there would be revolution and social disintegration. All that social energy has to be spent, one way or another, and sports is a benign outlet. Like animals in courtship, in sports we fight for display, not to harm. Sports can unify the empire. Without it we split into ethnic factions and fight it out in the streets. If we didn’t have stadiums full of people cheering for their team they would fill stadiums for the great dictator. So if little Johnny wrecks his elbow pitching before the 7th grade, it could be worse. He could be goosestepping in formation and throwing molotov cocktails at enemies of The Party.

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  3. Matt says:

    I am a bit offended. I was an all-state (track) and all-regional (football) athlete in high school, and was a two-year letter-winner in college track. I also have two degrees, working on a third, and am a gainfully employed engineer, making more money than any of my non-athlete friends. I think my “drive and determination” are what made me good at both — I realized I wasn’t going to be an elite athlete by my junior year of high school, but I sure gave it my all. I would say the same went for schoolwork and my attitude at work – I’m not going to let someone be better than me because I didn’t work hard enough. I attribute that to athletics.

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  4. RB says:

    RE: TV,

    I guess my premise for most TV is that its real purpose is to sell You something, whether you know that or not. Mostly your fears or hopes are played to 24/7. Hence american idol.

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  5. James says:

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

    I’d argue that that is most likely an empty set :-)

    As for kids and sports, the opportunity cost works another way. When kids devote all their leisure/activity hours to one sport, be it baseball, figure skating or whatever, that time can’t be spent learning & enjoying other activities which, unlike most of these “sports”, can be enjoyed throughout life. I’m sure we all know some high school/college athletes who relive their glory days on the couch in front of the screen, while those of us who never made the team are out hiking, biking, skiing, and generally getting a heck of a lot more out of life than those whose athletic lives ended at graduation.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    uh oh- here comes the Chomsky controversy all over again…

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  7. Neal says:

    I agree with @7 – it’s really all about what else you might be doing when you’re watching sports and/or playing fantasy sports. If your alternative activity would be founding the “next big thing” then of course there is huge negative economic impact on the individual but I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of would-be Bill Gates’ out there who are watching sports all day instead of making billions. If your alternative of choice would be going to the gym or running 5 miles then there might be mild economic detriment down the line as your health deteriorates faster than if you’d done those things more regularly. On the other hand, if fantasy football is your alternative to finding a bookie and developing a gambling problem then it’s probably an economically solid choice.

    The opportunity to research this question might be available this coming fall though if the NFL labor situation doesn’t get worked out. If the football watching population becomes dramatically more productive in the absence of games (and presumably fantasy games) then we might know more on the topic. Or at least be able to speculate a little more intelligently.

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  8. Beth says:

    One of my daughter’s was an avid dancer – starting with Irish and eventually moving to ballet. While there wore both economic and opportunity costs to her focus on dance, there were also some major benefits. Her memory and ability to concentrate improved dramatically. She learned a lot about setting goals, both winning and losing, and became much more self confident. While she aspired to a professional career in dance, and probably could have succeeded, she eventually moved on to academic pursuits, in which she has been successful. I think that it was a mixed, and at times traumatic experience, but on balance to her benefit. However, she was never encouraged to believe that it was her only, or even her best option in life.

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