March 02, 2015

Sports and Socio-Economic Status: More than Talent Required

Colby JakariBy Colby King and Jakari Griffith, Bridgewater State University

Colby King is an Assistant Professor of Sociology; Jakari Griffith is an Assistant Professor of Management

Recently, Pittsburgh Pirates star center fielder Andrew McCutchen shared a great essay  on The Players’ Tribune in which he reflects on his path to the pros. In the essay, he responds to the drama surrounding the Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team, which won the Little League World Series and then had their title taken away for having players on the team who lived outside of their geographic area. The emphasis of his essay  is a critique of what McCutchen, who was raised by a poor family in Fort Meade, Florida, sees as a broader problem: the cost and difficulties that talented kids from poor families face as they hope to be discovered by scouts.

Many talented players, McCutchen argues, are overlooked because their families can't afford to put them on travel teams and into showcase tournaments. He remembers that he had to choose between a new baseball bat or a video game system for Christmas. For real opportunities, though, players need more than a new bat. He writes, “It’s not about the $100 bat. It’s about the $100-a-night motel room and the $30 gas money and the $300 tournament fee. There’s a huge financing gap to get a child to that next level where they might be seen.”

I (Dr. Griffith) have a son who plays on an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, and count myself lucky that I’m able to cover many of the expected expenses associated with my son’s sports involvement. But there are many unexpected non-financial expenses that must also be unaccounted for. Parents must sometimes negotiate inflexible work schedules or manage the anxiety from having unreliable transportation. Involvement in competitive sports may also mean participating in a full assortment of between season supplemental practices, clinics, and workshops, which pose a unique challenge to resource-strapped parent.

For example, one time I approached my son about the possibility of enrolling in a lower cost program, and he said, “These leagues are the only places where I can work with the best players and coaches.”  What players (and their parents) frequently face is a difficult set of resources constraints. McCutchen writes, "If you’re a poor kid with raw ability, it’s not enough. You need to be blessed with many mentors to step in and help you." We would argue that this is a lesson that goes well beyond baseball. Success requires much more than talent alone.

We all rely on capital (financial, social, and cultural) to help us make the most of our skills and opportunities. Social capital includes the resources and assets that are available to us through our social networks. Cultural capital includes education, style of speech and dress, and physical appearance, and may be thought of as any non-monetary asset in social life. In our daily lives, social capital helps us learn new information and find opportunities. For example, perhaps a friend knows about a job opening at their company that we would have otherwise been unaware of. We use our cultural capital to know how to “fit in” in various social settings. For example, some people may know which fork to use for the first course  to at a fancy restaurant and others may not.

Another important form of capital, known as “psychological capital,” refers to the emotional resources like resilience and confidence, which are critical for overcoming the occasional failure or set back. However, in order for young ball players to draw on these resources, they must engage in activities that allow them to build these skills first. Competitive sports participation provides many learning opportunities and experiences that allow players to develop confidence in their own ability to use their talents. But key developmental experiences, such as those just mentioned, are often in short supply for those without direct means to access them. From McCutchen’s description, a young ballplayer relies on each of these forms of capital. They need the financial capital to afford to join the travel teams and travel to the tournaments, the social capital to know which teams would give them the best exposure, and the cultural capital to know how best to talk with scouts and recruiters, and the psychological capital to persist in their efforts.

At the state university where we work, I (Dr. King) teach a course on work and careers. I shared McCutchen’s essay in this course, and the students identified with McCutchen’s perspective. Many of my students shared similar stories which occurred well beyond athletics. They have friends who have are singers who have posted videos to the internet, hoping to gain followers or find a spot on a talent competition show. One student said that his brother was a great lacrosse player, but the brother had little chance of being recruited by one of the good colleges because the high school he attended was relatively small did not draw scouts to their games. Or, the students themselves explained that concerns about the real risks of student loan debt pushed them toward the most affordable college they could find.

When a talented player misses an opportunity because they did not have a mentor or their family could not afford to travel to a tournament, all of baseball misses out on that player’s talents. Likewise, we all miss out when a talented person is unable to make the most of their skills because they did not have a mentor to tell them where and how to look for opportunities, or because they could not afford tuition at a school where the could have honed their talent, or because they did not believe in themselves enough to try. In life, as in baseball, it’s not just about having talent. It’s also about having the resources with which to make the most of that talent. It takes talent and a diverse set of other resources to make the most of that talent.


You make a few good points in this post, but mainly the one that athletes need help along the way if they want to achieve the ultimate dream. They need mentors, they need to be around the best programs (most likely) if they want to reach the highest level. Few can do it without help. They are one in a million. But that's something current professional athletes can help with. They can give back to their communities and make sure the kids who may not have a chance otherwise, but possess the talent, to get that chance at stardom. Especially with the money being given to pro-athletes in today's world, they can accomplish so much for those who do not have the same opportunities.

My website, Athletes and Activism,( tries to highlight the good the current sport stars of today are doing. You can also email me at [email protected] to contact me further.

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They need mentors, they need to be around the best programs (most likely) if they want to reach the highest level. Few can do it without help. They are one in a million. But that's something current professional athletes can help with.

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