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PAINTER: Sports have a place for children of all skill levels

• Sep 11, 2017 at 3:00 PM

Is your child destined to earn an athletic college scholarship or become a professional athlete?

There are apparently many parents who hope that is the case for their children.

According to news articles in Time magazine and the Washington Post, more and more parents are steering their children to play on elite travel teams in the hope their child will at least earn a college scholarship. In fact, Time reported that the nation’s youth sports industry has increased 55 percent since 2010.

Sean Gregory of Time wrote the story in the Sept. 4 issue titled “How your child’s rec league turned into a $15 billion industry.” The story began by mentioning a kid, Joey Erace, who has been given the name of Joey Baseball because of his athletic talents. Gregory wrote that a boy approached Joey in a restaurant and asked for his autograph. Joey, 10, couldn’t give the autograph because he hadn’t yet learned how to write cursive. He had his photograph taken with the boy instead.

Gregory also wrote: “Across the nation, kids of all skills are getting swept up by a youth-sports economy that increasingly resembles the pros at increasingly early ages.” He wrote that Little Leagues, town soccer associations and church basketball teams have lost their luster.

According to the article, some parents go to great lengths to enhance their children’s elite travel team experiences, spending anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 each year in hopes their child will eventually earn a college scholarship. Joey Erace’s dad acknowledged that he spends more than $30,000 a year on his son’s baseball training.

For some parents, the cost is a severe strain on their household budget, but they believe it is worth it. “We would do anything for our kids,” one parent said.

But there are critics who believe those parents are ruining youth sports. Michael Rosenwald wrote in the Washington Post that “the number of kids playing team sports is falling because of the specialization of elite sports clubs. Baseball, basketball, softball, soccer and touch football — long staples of American childhood — have all taken hits, worrying public health advocates, league organizations and professional sports organizations.”

Critics also believe that elite travel teams put too much pressure on the kids. One critic suggested that parents would be better off setting aside the $20,000 to $30,000 for a scholarship fund, as only 2 percent of elite sport team members garner college scholarships.

Parents can go too far in pushing their children to excel in sports. Marv Marinovich received notoriety for the intense training program he implemented for his son in an attempt to develop him into an elite quarterback.

Todd Marionvich was a No. 1 draft pick, but he was plagued with substance abuse issues and had a very short NFL career. One ESPN commentator labeled Marv Marinovich as one of history’s worst sports fathers.

That, of course, was an extreme case of a parent pushing his child to succeed. I believe that most parents have good intentions. Whether they can afford having their children play for elite travel teams is their own business.

I know that my own family had unique sports experiences. Marilyn and I had two sons who played organized hockey, both of whom had to travel to play some games. Hockey is an expensive sport when you factor in the ice time, equipment and travel costs.

We were like all the other parents who had children on the teams — we wanted them to be happy playing a sport they enjoyed. I am sure most parents who have children playing on elite sports teams feel the same way.

But I still am a believer in the values of recreational competition. I know that I enjoyed my experiences playing on Little League and Babe Ruth League teams.

The fact is not all children have the skills to compete at the elite level, but they shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to play sports. I also believe that playing multiple sports helps kids develop all-around athletic skills.

There is no doubt the elite sports travel team industry will continue to grow, but we shouldn’t set aside the importance of sports for all of our kids.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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