NEW STUDY: Kids need to stick with sports for health benefits, not promise of riches

by Kelly Ledbetter, |
Welcome home LeBron James signage outside of St. Vincent St. Mary High School prior to the LeBron James Family Foundation Reunion and Rally at InfoCision Stadium, Akron, OH, USA. | Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Christian Examiner) – Telling your kid to work hard on the field is likely to make them healthy and happy. But telling them to prioritize basketball over government and economics because basketball will be more likely to land them a career is not only damaging to their futures but blatantly false, according to researchers.

American parents have significantly overblown expectations for their students' futures in professional sports, researchers have concluded, and those who encourage their high schoolers to participate in sports exclusively in order to play professionally are setting their children up for disappointment and failure.

"Despite the difficult odds, many parents hope their child will become a professional athlete," reads the study on sports and health in America, conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

About one out of every four parents (26 percent) who have a high school aged child in sports say they hope their child will become a professional athlete.

But the National Collegiate Athletic Association has data that shows almost exactly the opposite: a fraction of high school students who play sports will ever play professionally.

For example, of the 1,093,234 high school football players in 2013-2014, only 6.5 percent (about 71,000) will play in college, and only 1.6 percent of college players (about 1,100) are drafted by the NFL.


At The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham wrote, "Lower-income and less-educated parents are especially likely to harbor dreams of their children making the big leagues. ... But the danger is that the focus on athletics overshadows academics."

The sports and health study found parents' expectations varied substantially by socioeconomic status. Most concerning is the breakdown of parents' hopes when the parents' level of education is considered.

Forty-four percent of parents with a high school level of education or less said they hope their child will become a professional athlete, as opposed to 9 percent of parents who graduated college.

These parents harbor hope that their child will be the next LeBron James, relieving their financial worries forever.

Thirty-nine percent of parents in households of less than $50,000 a year said they hope their child will become a professional athlete, as opposed to 20 percent of parents with household incomes of $50,000 or more.

Poorer families dreaming of financial relief from a child's stellar sports career makes complete sense. However unlikely a professional sports career might be for any student, poorer parents would be more inclined to encourage sports participation for economic motivations.

"For most low-income kids, the ticket to upward mobility is a 4-year college degree, not a spot on the roster of the Cleveland Cavaliers," Ingraham pointed out.


Far more high school students say they want to play professional sports, Ingraham said, than study engineering, even though a STEM major is exponentially more likely to raise a student's socioeconomic level than the NFL draft.

"Too often," Ingraham lamented, "it seems like the families who can least afford it are devoting large amounts of time and attention on their kids' athletic prospects, and shortchanging their academic ones."

Despite the noteworthy benefits of sports participation—students eat healthier, are more fit, are less anxious or depressed, and might use drugs less than those who don't do sports—the huge disconnect between parental expectations for a professional career and the likelihood of students' professional sports achievements largely comes down to motivation.

Encouraging students to stick with sports because it is good for them is a lot different than hoping football will make them rich, the study says.