African-American comedian Dave Chappelle once mused in one of his specials in the early 2000s that a young black kid can only escape poverty and hardships of the projects by either playing basketball or making music. It was a light hearted statement, but rang true. Perhaps that was the intent – using humour to highlight the obstacles of being black and more importantly being poor in America. However, in today’s world another question is gaining a lot of traction, “How does using sports to get out of poverty work when you have to be rich to play at all?”

Today the amateur sports business is worth $17 billion, greater than many of the professional leagues in USA as well as the world. The business side of amateur sports is booming like never before. The March Madness tournament has gone from grainy footages of the 60s and 70s to a highly televised sporting event which has sponsors with very deep pockets. In 2019 alone, the NCAA generated about $860 million. Let’s look at the world of amateur sports from the kids’ perspective or the players if you will. For the kids it is a tale of two classes; the rich and the poor and this tale is old as time itself. The Aspen Institute’s Project Play in 2018 published a report in which two statistics illustrate the polarised nature of amateur sports. In families who earn less than $25,000 only 34% of the kids played a team sport for at least one day whereas in families earning more than $100,000 the number jumps to 70%. These statistics however force us to look at the bigger picture – and that is inaccessibility of sports for the poor families.

So are kids in the lower income families less talented or less motivated? Nowadays, most professional players start playing at a very early age and usually specialise in their sport by the age of 12. Look at NBA star Lebron James who was already dominating basketball in high school and was subsequently selected 1st overall in the 2003 draft without even playing college basketball. The early bird gets the worm and the kids have to train and play at a very competitive level from an early age to be considered a good Division 1 prospect. This is the phase in an amateur player’s life where his economic status determines his future success and the meritocracy argument falls like a house of cards.

Players from rich or well to do families have the ability to afford good equipment and better trainers in these formative years. These players can attend elite private schools and play in highly competitive leagues against similar elite schools in their district. These schools also have dedicated sports programmes with professional coaches who can push an above average player to a Division 1 prospect. Parents are willing to pay higher amounts of money for the development of their child’s prospect with the prospect of advantageous college places on offer for sports scholarships. The Aspen Institute’s report shows that some parents spend up to $35,000 and most of the parents who come from a higher income group can spend up to $10,000 for equipment, trainers and fees. This is not to say these kids won’t have to put in the work but that they start from an inherently advantageous position.

On the contrary, the reality of the players from poorer backgrounds is a far cry from this.  The economically challenged kids will never encounter adequate sporting facilities until they at least reach high school which is also when they will start to play a sport at a competitive level for the first time. Throw the specialising-in-one-sport-by-12 statistic out of the window. These kids will be thrust into competition with their peers who have already grown comfortable in that cut-throat environment and will most definitely be out of their depth. Unsurprisingly, most of these kids will not secure their D1 scholarships and will not play at a good college.  These kids usually come from inner city schools in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Oakland and these schools are underfunded when it comes to sports. The situation is so bad in fact that in many of these schools a pay-to-play system is adopted in which the students have to pay a fee to play which can be as high as $1000. The students in such situations usually back out before playing a single game due to this. In more extreme cases, the public school authorities cut the funding entirely and schools are left without a sports team.  Most of the students coming from such areas could potentially become the 1st generation of their families to attend college but an NCAA GOALS study in 2015 showed that out of all D1 athletes across sports and across gender only 14 % are 1st generation prospects and this number is only expected to decrease in the coming years. In such adverse environments, a student athlete will be hard pressed to find success and disparities in income will become a factor in their drive to play a sport.

More than an economic issue, this has become a human and civil rights issue for society to ponder. There is a dangerous undercurrent of discrimination and marginalisation running just beneath the surface. The population in the aforementioned inner cities is predominantly African American and Latino and policies of underfunding and cost-cutting in sports programmes have a great impact on their future beyond what can be seen in statistics. A high proportion of Black and Latino students attend schools which have no sports teams at all across these inner cities. These students thus lack equitable access to the resources and the opportunities for them to play sports which is granted to those in predominantly Caucasian districts. In 2019, a class action lawsuit was filed by a civil rights advocacy group New York Lawyers for Public Interest representing Black and Latino students who are being denied access to New York public high school sports. This lawsuit hinges on statistics which show fewer students from these ethnic backgrounds playing sports – especially in New York City area. The immediate political response was to introduce a bill pertaining to this issue in the City Council, but I am of the opinion that it was and remains a token gesture, one which will face a long legal battle ahead without any hope of enactment. This boils down to the fact that students are now suing to play sports, something which should be readily available to them in an ideal world.

“The National Youth Sports Strategy is a federal roadmap designed to unify U.S. youth sports culture around a shared vision: that one day all youth will have the opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports — regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, ability, or ZIP code.”

A very important and recent document that may become instrumental in providing access to sports is the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Youth Sports Strategy which was introduced in September of 2019. The document is aimed towards legislators and policymakers in youth sports who can use this as a groundwork to build laws in order to increase equitable youth participation in sports. It contains various statistics which furthers my case for the importance of youth sports and the need for an all inclusive approach when it comes to accessibility. It even proclaims in its Q & A webpage: “The National Youth Sports Strategy is a federal roadmap designed to unify U.S. youth sports culture around a shared vision: that one day all youth will have the opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports — regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, ability, or ZIP code”. It is a pretty bold statement, but perhaps bold statements are needed in an era of legislative compromises which come at the cost of under-privileged kids and their dreams of playing sports.

It is the “American Dream” which supposes that anyone can become successful if he just works hard enough and America is successful because it rewards grit and determination and punishes laziness and lack of hard-work. However, it also supposes that there is an even playing field which is not anywhere near the truth. In this world, the scales are tipped in the favour of those with privilege and money who have ample resources to make the “American Dream” their personal reality. Perhaps there are stories of underdog athletes such as 76ers star Allen “The Answer” Iverson or Toronto player Serge Ibaka who made it against all odds, which are told time and again to fuel motivation into African American youths looking to make it into the big leagues. Perhaps there are also countless stories of athletes and players who just couldn’t make it due to their status which remain untold to this day.

Ritwik Deswal

Ritwik Deswal is an undergraduate student from University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University. He is an avid follower of NBA and Premier League football supporting Boston Celtics and Arsenal respectivly. He has a keen interest in sports law and the various areas of sports that it encompasses such as player trade, contract signings, extensions and salary caps of teams. Ritwik is also interested in human and civil rights laws and how it shapes the lives of underprivileged people and people of colour. He has previously interned at Debt Recovery Tribunal, Chandigarh.

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