Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Play as a Kid's Right

Ethics in Youth Sports

Ethics in Youth Sports

The Changing Culture of Youth Sports

Ann Skeet

At its core, youth sports is about human rights. Before you object that Little League and human rights are not in the same league, consider this article of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified in 192 countries: Children have the right to relax and play.

But in the United States, that right is in danger as we are forgetting the meaning of play. A recent survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, showed that the number of children playing team sports has fallen by 4 percent since 2009. According to the Washington Post,

Experts [are] blaming a parent-driven focus on elite travel clubs, specialization in one sport and pursuit of scholarships for hurting the country’s youth sports leagues.

The shift to elite competition over the past two decades has taken a growing toll: Children are playing fewer sports, and the less talented are left behind in recreational leagues with poor coaching, uneven play and the message that they aren’t good enough. Seventy percent of kids quit sports by age 13.

My initial awareness of how these pressures had crept into child’s play came while serving as the president of private, Catholic high school during the Great Recession when college affordability became a concern for growing numbers. The athletic director at my school at the time shared with me that expectations about securing athletic scholarships were getting wildly out of whack with reality.

The real cost was to the kids themselves, as more of them dropped out of sports at younger ages, burning out after premature exposure to travel teams and club sports that were costly and consumed weekend family time. “Trust me,” the athletic director said, “the kids playing on a competitive team in third grade are going to be done with that sport by high school.” If they were not mentally burnt out, their bodies would be, suffering from the kinds of overuse injuries one would expect to see in professional athletes, not young children in the prime of their healthiest, playing years.

I invite parents to consider their children’s human rights “to play and relax” and ask if they are upholding them. A typical American parent at any socioeconomic level has likely not considered that a child living in the U.S. might have her rights’ violated and not just in the tragic circumstances of poverty or domestic violence.

It happens every day on a field where a child is required to play a sport that she has no interest in or to compete at a level that is too advanced for her maturity or skill level. It happens when a child must recover from an injury she would never have sustained if she had not been required to overuse her still developing body. It happens when she must work at a sport as if at a job while still she is a child. It happens while the adults — league officials, paid and volunteer coaches and parents — change the field of play to one of hard knocks and harder truths, trading off longer-term benefits in fitness, teamwork, resilience, and fairness for short-terms gains grounded in the concerns of adults.

For more on sports as a human right, see Human Rights in Youth Sport, by Paolo David, published by Rutledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2005.

Ann Skeet is the director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  This article first appeared on Medium.

Photo by adwriter available under a Creative Commons license of

Dec 10, 2015

Subscribe to Our Blogs

* indicates required
Subscribe me to the following blogs: