Athletics and the Underprivileged: The Illusion of Wealth

The following is an article I wrote several years back.  The statistics are old now, but I feel like the logic is sound, so I’m standing behind them.  The names of the various people are fictitious, but the people themselves are very much real.  Hope you enjoy.

I remember my first day of football practice clearly.  I was nine, a short and stocky kid who couldn’t run for anything, but I was strong for my age and not shy of contact.  The coach drove a rusted-out van packed full of equipment that varied in condition from poor to unusable.  He gave me a helmet that was a little too big and a pair of shoulder pads held together with duct tape.  By the end of practice, he made me his starting defensive tackle and offensive guard, and for the next eight years, I devoted most of my time and energy to improving my skills as a football player.

I was on an awesome team that first year; we won the league championship and then demolished the champions from the next county in an exhibition bowl.  Another thing I remember most is how we boys all dreamed of making it to the pros.  We rarely spoke of it aloud, but each of us in our hearts dreamed of making it to the show.  Our halfback was the best player at that level in the county.  He was also a pretty good baseball player, a natural shortstop if I ever saw one.  His father pushed him every day to get better, constantly yelling and cursing for more effort.  Roger and I played on the same football teams for the next seven years, and nearly every year he was one of the best players we had, but by the time we made it to high school, the pressure from his father had become enormous.  Eventually, Roger began drinking and using drugs.  His skills didn’t diminish right away, but his attitude did.  He quit football and baseball after his junior year.  Today, he is a manual laborer for a local factory and has been in and out of jail.

Another good player from that team was our defensive end.  At eight, Jeff was already a monster and loved nothing more than crushing whoever had the ball.  He loved football as much as anyone I’ve known; you could see it in his eyes in the middle of a play.  He was only really happy on the field.  In his mid-twenties, Jeff was stabbed to death by his stepfather in a drunken brawl.  At the time he was working as a stock-person for Wal-Mart.

Whenever I think about that team, my sentimental side swells up.  We weren’t supposed to be any good.  Our Grasscutter League, as it was called, was divided up by the elementary schools.  Our team was comprised of the two poorest schools in the county.  Before that year, the team had finished last for as long as anyone could remember.  We weren’t expected to do any better, but we were dumb kids who didn’t know our place.  We just loved to play ball.

To my knowledge, about half of that team played football for the two high schools in the county, but only three of us went to college, none for playing that sport.  Needless to say, none of us ever played pro ball in any sport.  As a matter of fact, the only player from the league that year who went on to do much in athletics was James “Little Man” Stewart.  He made it to the show in 1995 as a draft pick of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.  That’s one out of approximately three hundred kids who managed to reach the dream we all shared.

I love competitive sports.  I firmly believe that at their best sports celebrate life, a testimony to what the body can accomplish when the mind and spirit will it.  Despite having a bad knee, bad shoulders, and stiff joints, I wouldn’t give back my days on the field for anything.  I never felt more alive than when I was lined up at the ball, waiting for the snap, waiting to collide with the person across from me to see who would get the best on that play.  If I could freeze my body in time and never age, I would play football forever.

But I know that focusing so much of my energy on the game has put me years behind intellectually.  When my peers were reading or studying, I was bench pressing or jogging.  When my peers were applying for scholarships to colleges and universities, I was hoping that a college scout would see me on the field and want me to play for them.  The same can be said for Roger and Jeff.  Roger and I lived on the same street, and I never once heard either of his parents tell him to study, never saw either of them read to him.  But they bought him a weight set for Christmas, and his father made him run sprints or practice swinging or chase ground balls every day.

My father was not as demanding or aggressive as Roger’s was.  He never yelled at me and never punched me in the eye for not running fast enough or missing an easy grounder, but there was also never any discussion about my future.  I would play football, earn a scholarship to college, and play for as long as I could.  End of story.  He didn’t directly teach me to be studious or to make a living with my mind.  He was a laborer, and laborers don’t tend to think along those lines.

Some would argue that our parents were to blame for the lack of direction or the misdirection we had.  Parents are the primary teachers in children’s lives.  If parents do not instill the proper values in children, then those parents should be accountable.  I do agree with that premise, but I don’t agree that our parents were wrong to encourage us to pursue athletics.  There is little worse than being poor, especially in an affluent society.  Each day is more of a struggle than it should be.  I watched my father work sometimes as much as seventy hours a week and still have barely enough money to keep the lights turned on and food on the table.  We drove fifteen-year-old cars that seemed to break down every week.  Life was miserable every day, and hope of a better tomorrow was an obscene joke that teachers and politicians told us to keep us from taking up guns and doing somebody harm.  My father did not want that life for me.  He saw that I had certain physical gifts and knew that those gifts, if developed, could be a way out.  Laborers are paid to use their bodies and are rarely, if ever, rewarded for their minds.  It follows logically that my father would expect that I would have to use my body to earn a living, and if I had to use my body, I should pursue a well-paying job.

According to the US Census Bureau, the estimated median salary in Tennessee in 1997 was $32,047.  By contrast, in an article on ESPN.com concerning salaries in the year 2000, the average in the National Basketball Association was $3.5 million; Major League Baseball $1,988,034; and the National Football League, by way of the salary cap, $1,043,000 a player.  When just looking at those numbers, anyone with any sense would prefer to pursue the salaries of a professional athlete.  My father has always been an intelligent man, and his common sense told him to push me in athletics.  Jeff and Roger’s parents did the same.

And we obliged them, practicing our sports with crazed enthusiasm.  We ran, lifted weights, studied films, avoided tobacco, didn’t date seriously, stayed in class just to make the grades for sports, and spent every waking minute dreaming about the show.  In practice, we pushed ourselves until our sides ached and our legs cramped, until our bodies were rock solid and tough.  Then, the reality of sports came crashing down.  First, Roger walked away completely.  He wasn’t a good student by anyone’s definition, and with no marketable skills except a strong back, his future was already set in stone.  Jeff’s story is almost identical.  I don’t know that he was under as much pressure from his parents, but drugs and alcohol definitely ended his playing days too early.

My story is different.  A severe head injury my junior year of high school basically took away my senior season.  I was on the team but rarely played, not enough for any scout to notice me.  To this day, I don’t know if I just didn’t have the talent to play in college or if the accident ended the dream, but as my senior year progressed and the hope of an athletic scholarship disappeared, a deep, severe depression set in.  But I was the lucky one.  I received a scholarship to the community college for high school athletes who did not have an opportunity to pursue college sports.  Somehow, I adjusted and moved on, becoming a serious student and getting a decent education.

I could probably recite the names of hundreds of athletes with stories similar to Roger’s or Jeff’s.  I would have difficulty naming a dozen people who came from a similar socioeconomic situation as myself and were pushed to pursue sports but managed to get an education after the playing days ended.  I am not naive enough to believe that all or even most of the poor kids with whom I played ball could have made it in college.  Most of them were never challenged intellectually, but I do believe that a solid percentage of them, between ten and twenty-five percent, could have made it with the proper guidance.  Instead, most of them are more than likely breaking their bodies at a job that scarcely pays a living wage.  And I would be willing to bet a month’s salary that most of them are pushing their children in athletics and neglecting education.

I’m not usually one to place blame on the media for society’s problems.  I don’t believe TV or movies or Rap are exclusively to blame for school violence.  I don’t believe talk shows are to blame to for bizarre sexual behavior despite the fact that certain popular talk shows exploit this behavior for ratings.  I do, however, believe that sports media share part of the blame for economically underprivileged children forgoing education in favor of athletics.  Children are drawn to sports on TV because of the drama, the spectacle, and the romantic nostalgia placed on it by the media.  ESPN shows highlight reel after highlight reel of spectacular plays: basketball players dunking, baseball players smashing home runs, and football players scoring touchdowns.  These visual segments are spliced together in rapid-fire succession, each image lasting scarcely more than a second or two.  This frenetic pace creates an artificial glamour around athletes.  Instead of seeing the hours upon hours of intense practice and study that goes into being a professional athlete, children see bytes of plays that constitute a minuscule fraction of game time.  Children are given the spectacle not the reality.  Other than the Spelling Bee, rarely does ESPN make a serious effort to promote the educational aspects of athletics.  The Heisman Trophy Presentation is aired nationally in prime-time and sponsored by multi-million dollar corporations, but the Academic All-American Teams rarely even get mentioned.

ESPN is not alone in this propagation of spectacle.  Fox has combined the glitz and glitter of Hollywood celebrities with slapstick comedy to market its sports programming, hardly a combination that instills a sense of intellectual development.  To my knowledge, Sports Illustrated has never done an issue on economically disadvantaged people who managed to put themselves through college and create successful lives.  Critics might argue that it is not the place of a sports magazine to run such an issue because that has nothing to do with sports, but each year that magazine publishes a swimsuit edition that equally has nothing to do with athletic pursuits.

All children are damaged by this media-driven image of professional sports, but children from affluent families have more of an opportunity to overcome the damage.  More than likely, their parents have started some sort of college fund for them, and statistics show that in most middle-class or better families, at least one parent has a college degree.  Children from these families are more likely to enter college than children from families in which neither parent has a college education.  Once poor children have been drawn into the belief that the glamour and spectacle of sports is their ticket out of poverty, the odds become heavily stacked against them ever attending college because athletic scholarships are not in abundance.

The NCAA reports that for the 97-98 season there were in men’s athletics 7,723 teams and 203,686 athletes.  In woman’s athletics, there were 7,859 teams and 135,110 athletes.  There are roughly thirty-eight million traditional college age people in the United States.  In other words, less than one percent of the nation’s eligible population actually participates in college athletics.  The odds of attending college as an athlete are not good, even to a desperate gambler, and I would speculate that those odds go up for someone from a poor family.  In football specifically, the collegiate sport with the highest number of players, there are roughly 14,000 public high schools with football programs.  At an estimate of fifty players a team, that calculates as 700,000 football players just in public schools.  In the NCAA in the 1997 season, there were 599 football teams and 54,793 athletes.  I do not know how many of those players came from private schools, but regardless, the raw chances of making it from public high school, where the vast majority of underprivileged children attend, to a college football team are less than seven percent.

When I was in high school, I did have a handful of teachers who challenged me to live up to my intellectual potential.  A freshman biology teacher went out of his way to encourage me in writing.  The art teacher treated me like an adult and encouraged me to develop my imagination.  Every English teacher I had pushed me to understand the language and its power.  The accounting and finance teacher, who coached freshman football and varsity baseball, was one of the most demanding teachers I have encountered on any level.  I have personally thanked each of these people for helping me become who I am.

The rest of my teachers barely acknowledged my presence.  A handful of them even went so far as to tell me that I was wasting my time in their advanced classes.  My future was in a factory, not college.  From their advice, I was told that machine shop or woodworking would suit me better in the long run than World History, American History, Anatomy, Chemistry, or Trigonometry would.  To a sixteen-year-old with already fragile self-esteem, this apathy from the people charged with improving my future was devastating.  I spent several years in college overcoming in myself the belief that I did not belong, and I am quite certain that the damage done to my self-image in those formative years has held me back in many facets of my life and career.

Coaches themselves are not exempt from criticism.  In high school, sports are ultra-competitive in every community I have seen.  However, the focus is not on teaching competition; winning is what matters.  With the exception of one coach who also taught economics, my varsity coaches did not encourage students to study anything more than game films and playbooks.  We were athletes first and foremost, and our attention was supposed to be on the coming game.  Considering that the percentage of players who would compete beyond that level is less than seven percent, coaches who do not push athletes to study must be somewhat culpable for their former players who become mired in menial jobs.

I once had a conversation with one of my students about high school sports.  We are the same age, but he took a longer route getting to college than I did.  Steve played halfback in football and competed on the track and field team.  Shortly before his senior season, he learned that he was academically ineligible to play football.  Somehow, through lack of effort on his part or pressure from coaches or lack of guidance by counselors, he was a credit or two short.  I have taught hundreds of students of all ages and backgrounds and can honestly say that Steve ranks in the top five percent of all my students in terms of perception and logic.  There is no excuse for this young man to have ever been academically behind in anything, but because he was a superstar athlete, he admits that school was never considered a big deal.  No one pushed him to use his mind because his body was so good.  Like me, Steve viewed football as a means to go to college; his family could not afford to pay for it, either.  To each of us, the sport became the vessel through which we would escape our families’ heritage.

In Tennessee, there is a demand for college graduates.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 650,000 annual job openings requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher; however, in 1990, the year I graduated from high school, there were only 500,991 people in Tennessee with post graduate or bachelor’s degrees out of a population of more than 4,800,000.  In a market with this high of a demand, teachers should have been encouraging students such as myself to pursue college degrees in the areas with the greatest needs.  Instead, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that college graduates from other states would fill the 150,000 or so openings.  In my experience, this attitude stems from Social Darwinism, a 19th century belief that the poor are poor because they lack the capacity for education.  People who maintain this ideology reject Thomas Jefferson’s belief that in a democratic society people from all social and economic classes should receive education in order to cultivate leadership from all of society, thus strengthening the democratic process.  In effect, I say that people who reject this belief ultimately reject democracy itself.

Recently, while walking at a park, I saw a father teaching his son to bat.  The boy could not have been more than nine or ten, but the father was firing sixty to seventy mile an hour fastballs at him.  The boy missed every pitch I saw, and with every one, the father grew more and more irascible, reminding me so much of how Roger’s father “taught” him.  By their clothes and the car I later saw them get into, they were from the same socioeconomic background as I grew up in.  I’m sure the father believed in his heart that his son could be the next “Little Man” Stewart.  I’m sure he dreamed of the salaries, the signing bonuses, and the endorsements his son would earn.

Let’s imagine that his son beats the odds and makes it to college as a football player.  Then, he follows James Stewart and becomes one of the 1,643 professional football players in this country.  The average length of an NFL player’s career is 3.2 years.  At the previously mentioned average salary, his son would probably earn around 3.3 million dollars in his football career.  Depending on the quality of education he receives in college — assuming he pursues a real degree and graduates — his future after football may or may not be bright.  There are success stories of athletes such as Magic Johnson and Walter Payton who went into various businesses after their careers and did well.  There are also stories of players like James Brooks, a running back for the Cincinnati Bengals in the 80’s, who squander their money and retire broke.  Brooks has even spent time in jail for not paying child support.  Ultimately, how players spend those large sums of money is up to the individual’s character, but when examining the money more closely, we can easily see that the average player does not become wealthy.  From the 3.3 million, this young man will pay roughly thirty-five percent in federal taxes.  Going with that figure, his salary will become $2.2 million before he has seen anything.  Then, he will have to pay his agent five percent of the original gross, approximately $160,000.  The young man will have a net salary of just over two million dollars before he pays for his accountant, his lawyer, and any other professionals who surround him during his playing days.

Because his father pushed him in athletics and ignored education, let’s imagine that this young man does not do well after his football career and settles for a menial labor job at $25,000 a year.  If he is lucky, his body will hold up for twenty more years in this job, which means before taxes he will earn $500,000 more dollars.  As a professional athlete and a laborer, this young man might gross around 3.8 million dollars in his life.

Now, let’s take a different scenario with this same young man.  Imagine that athletics are only part of his focus in childhood.  His parents spend three or more hours each night reading with him, teaching him math skills, and sharpening his long- and short-term memory.  Instead of hoping for an athletic scholarship, this young man applies for academic-based scholarships because he has excelled as a student as well as an athlete.  He attends college and studies pre-medicine, then enters medical school.  By the age of thirty-five, he has become a physician.  In Tennessee in 1998, the median income for physicians was $124,800.  Let’s say the young man practices medicine until he is seventy-five.  At that yearly income, he would earn $4,992,000, much more than he would earn as the average professional football player for a career.

It is farfetched to believe that this child from a poor background could so easily become a physician earning that salary, but not as farfetched as him becoming a pro athlete.  NFL rosters are set at 53 players a team, and only between five and ten rookies make it to this final number on each team each season.  At most there are around 320 new players every year.  In contrast, there are 370 annual job openings for physicians in Tennessee alone.

While I have examined figures for Tennessee specifically, I’m sure the basic concept holds true in most states.  Poor children would be better served to pursue academics over athletics in most cases.  The odds of becoming a collegiate athlete are staggering, not to mention moving on to the professional ranks.  The real problem is finding a solution that works.  The mentality that athletics are the way out of poverty can be seen on every playground, basketball court, football field, and baseball diamond where children compete.  It can be found in the stands where parents scream and yell and curse at their own children, other athletes, coaches, and referees.  It exists in classrooms and in the media.  Each year, we lose countless thousands of potential managers, accountants, doctors, and leaders because poor children, who need education as much as anything, are pushed to ignore studies in favor of sports.

Until we as a society can convince the parents of underprivileged children that athletics are not the answer, this problem will persist.  Until we can convince the media that responsibility is as important as ratings, we will have an inflated image of professional sports.  Until we can fill our classrooms with teachers who reach out to every student regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic class, we will lose good kids to lives of menial labor.  Overcoming all of these factors is a Herculean task but one that is necessary for our country to maintain democracy because it cannot exist if there is not equal opportunity for everyone to excel.

I don’t want to dismantle youth athletics.  I firmly believe that kids learn valuable lessons from competition, but I would love to go back in time and teach Roger’s father to read to his son instead of screaming at him to run harder.  I would teach Jeff to put as much passion into addition and subtraction as he did into tackling.  And I would tell my father that my mind could earn more money than my body.  We might not have won as many games or the league championship, but I’m positive we could have sent more than three kids to college.

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