Coaching third-grade softball for my township's Little League, I wasn't trying to relive varsity victories or prepare my daughters to play in college. It's not that I wasn't serious about the sport. After all, I'd vied with Mary Rita Shepherd in grade school for over-the-fence home runs, played shortstop and center field in high school, and competed on the coed "Killer Penguins," Bryn Mawr-Haverford's intramural team.
But by the time I took out my old glove again, the game had changed. Organized sport was no longer just a formal framework for fun, but rather, an increasingly commercial enterprise. Today, economic calculations too often drive kids' choices of which sports to play — or whether to play at all.
As my fellow coach Rick Eckstein, the father of two daughters and a sociology professor at Villanova University, puts it, "Recreational sports programs such as Little League softball are under siege from allegedly more prestigious commercial organizations that are always promising a commodified path to the next level, rather than heralding the intrinsic fun of participation." In How College Athletics Are Hurting Girls' Sports: The Pay-to-Play Pipeline, he compiles facts, figures, and female athletes' stories to show that the time and money families spend on professional coaches, camps, and travel teams only rarely pays off in significant scholarships or admissions advantages — though the specialization this system demands can cost players their friends, health, and freedom to develop or pursue other interests.
This focus on outcome-oriented sports is linked to another troubling trend: a 10 percent drop in youth sports participation after age 13.
"At the youth level, [commercial organizations] are selling this magnified illusion that there are all these opportunities for intercollegiate scholarships — that you can save $250,000 — and that's not chump change," Eckstein says.
But in researching the subject as public sociology, he found that fewer than 15 percent of Division I athletes are on "full" scholarships, mostly in sports (basketball and football) for which the NCAA mandates the number and amount of awards. For most athletes, the actual mean dollar amount received is modest and doesn't keep pace with rising college costs. "And colleges do very little to dissuade people from believing the illusion, because they benefit [in applications and alumni donations]," he says. "Intercollegiate athletics is the engine of the pay-to-play system."
Quantitative and qualitative data support what too many parents and players learn the hard way: There is a disconnect between what youth programs promise and reality.
"Girls and their families may have pumped $100,000 into the youth soccer to college pipeline and only received back, at most, about $60,000 on that investment," Eckstein writes, referencing statistics sourced from the NCAA, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the College Board. "Most receive far less than that, if anything."
Of the sports he scrutinizes — from Ultimate Frisbee (with no varsity presence) to soccer (with a significant intercollegiate footprint) — only women's ice hockey, for which demand exceeds supply, provides a reasonable monetary return on investment.
Contrary to the cherished myth that athletic scholarships level the college admissions playing field, he notes that the selective, restrictive pay-to-play system limits participation by low-income kids and serves as "de facto affirmative action for wealthy, primarily white, suburban families."
And even athletes who succeed in scoring scholarships often find that their "student athlete" title doesn't match the job description. With an NCAA prohibition on campus jobs and practices scheduled for 30 hours a week, it's clear to Eckstein's subjects that college life outside athletics is a distraction from their real work.
"A soccer goalie from the Midwest just started crying, telling me she didn't want to play anymore but didn't know what to do," he says. "I think one of the reasons these athletes would break down with me is because they've internalized the rhetoric for so long. Finally, the contradictions they've been pushing away get to be too heavy, and crush them all at once. I wrote this book to give those students a voice."
Though athletes and their parents may not get straight answers from coaches or colleges, Eckstein advises them to ask "about the distribution of scholarships" (or "scholarship equivalencies," the NCAA term for an award split up among players). How many people — what percentage of the team — receive money? How much? How many — what percentage — keep their scholarship aid for all four years?"
But a simpler question might be: "Are we having fun?"
In the affluent Philadelphia suburbs where Eckstein and I coached, girls' lacrosse boomed with the increase in athletic scholarships, making it harder to field a softball team. To compete for players, some softball coaches tried to up the ante, bringing in pitching consultants and extending the season with tournament play to make the league more competitive.
Looking back on his coaching days, Eckstein says: "Winning games was never important, as long as the girls were having fun and learning stuff and cementing their friendships."
But we both observed how girls who'd turned cartwheels in the outfield and never asked the score began heckling one another and playing to win. This "masculinization" of girls' sports (wherein girls, coached by men, play and train like the boys) boosts girls' success in the pay-to-play pipeline — an ironic outcome of the law intended to prohibit sex discrimination in federally funded activities, Eckstein notes.
"One of the reasons I stayed involved in softball was to be a counter force to the trash-talking culture," he says, citing a longitudinal study, done by the University of Idaho Center for ETHICS (Ethical Theory and Honor in Competition and Sport), showing that serious female athletes are becoming more like male athletes when it comes to cheating. Though I've joked that my coaching credentials include attending and working at Bryn Mawr, a women's college with a community-building honor code, this mindless adoption of a male-centric model of athletic excellence is what bothered me the most.
The commercialization of girls' sports isn't academic for either of us — though working in higher education gave us both a preview of our children 10 years into the future. Aiming to raise authentic adults, we coached our kids to value process over product; we tried to teach, through team relationships, that learning isn't simply a bell-curved commodity.
"There are a million kids and families that would prefer a different system, where sports are open to everybody," Eckstein says. "And it might just be the college athletes who are most willing to entertain that idea."
Eckstein's oldest daughter stuck with softball through eighth grade, and then picked up Ultimate Frisbee. His youngest played soccer on "a low-key travel team," and resisted (with her dad's help) the pressure to specialize.
By sixth grade, my daughters had dropped softball for acting at a community theater that promotes the inclusiveness and teamwork I had been trying to encourage on the field. But I was out of my league before they were. Like Charlie Brown in Peanuts, coaching Little League softball made me see that my love of the game was stoked not by winning but by loss — of my youth, of a long-ago life spent mostly outdoors, of early morning batting practice with my dad, fondly recalled.
What Rick Eckstein would call fun.