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. Joshua Northey says:

    “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. ”

    I always take issue with this particular claim because it is not comparing apples to apples. The Minnesota State High School League also always loves to splash these statistics all the time.

    OF COURSE athletes do better than the student body at large, they:
    A) don’t include those thrown out/excluded from athletics for poor grades.
    B) don’t include those with little to no ambition or attention span (yes people like this make it into college all the time, and HSs are brimming with them).
    C) Generally take fewer and easier courses.

    Sure athletes do better than the student body at large in outcomes, but so do members of the math team, or the public interest research group, or the junior chamber of commerce, or any other sort of non-school activity.

    If your choice is between having your kid play baseball, or having him come home and watch TV for 4 hours by all means please have him play baseball to improve his education. But you could also get him interested in the law, or politics, or science, and he would do even better!

    Not that I am against sports, I love MSHL events, and played in them as a child. I still play organized sports today. But lets not pretend that having your daughter play softball is going to be better for her schooling than having her on mock trial, because its demonstrably false and the pro-athletics lobby likes to insinuate it constantly.

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  2. Mairead says:

    As a sport–oriented student, I think it’s fair to say that a fair amount of student athletes will come to the understanding that they are not pro-bound athletes by the time they are in high school. Of course every athlete would love nothing more than to be in the big leagues, but from my experience only the die hard athletes are the one’s that actually pursue such goals.

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  3. Holley Hopkins says:

    I believe that there are some benefits along with some disadvantages. I played sports as a child and I loved it. It helped boost self confidence and kept me fit as a kid. I played hockey for 6 years and track for 4. I agree with some disadvantages. For example, while playing both sports, I received a sport-related injury that cost my parents a ton of money and cost me my time. I fractured my ankle while playing hockey and was on crutches for over 4 months. Also, I had to receive some physical therapy to regain it’s strength. Along with that my sophomore year of track, I tore my FCL in my right leg. I was out the rest of the season and had to receive x-rays, constant doctor visits and 5 months of physical therapy. I’m not saying that if you play a sport as a child, you will get an injury, I’m just saying for me, it cost my parents a lot of money and a lot of my time. Overall, however, I think sports in teens and young adults are beneficial.

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  4. west coast says:

    Look at the acceptance standards of highly selective colleges for athletes versus non athletes. The ticket to Dartmouth or Williams or other similar college can be seen with good SATs/grades and great athletics or very top or the class SATs/ grades for non athletes. I know dozens of exceptional athletes that wouldn’t have gotten into bumper sticker colleges any other way. They are doing fine after graduation, I bet the competitiveness that got them so good at athletics translates well in the business world, even if they weren’t top grade makers.

    I went to a large public high school in the 90′s, 200+ students would try out for the men’s soccer team each year. The kids that made the coveted varsity team 1) played year round on expensive club teams or 2) were recent African immigrants that spent their childhoods playing soccer 2-6 hours a day for fun (and lack of schools).

    Its not about professional athletes in the middle to upper classes, its about trying to either get into the top school possible, or get a free ride on athletic scholarship.

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