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Michael Messner (Sociologist): Bemoans The Professionalization, Commercialization Of Youth Sports

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Editors Note: This blog is part of a special series on dads which originally ran in 2012. Because it is timeless we are sharing it again. 

Being the father of an athlete is a challenging yet rewarding role. At MomsTEAM we think sports dads deserve to be honored, not just on the third Sunday in June, but for an entire month. So we have designated June as National Sports Dads Month and invited some veteran sports dads to share their wisdom by responding to a series of questions (the same ones we asked sports moms in May). We will post a new blog for every day of June, which we hope you will find interesting, empowering, and informative, and that you will share them with your family and friends.

Today we hear from USC sociologist and gender studies expert, Michael Messner: Michael Messner USC professor

MomsTEAM: Were you an athlete and what sports did you play as a youth (under 19)?

Messner: I played lots of sports for fun as a kid in the 1950s and 60s, much of it kid-organized on driveways and in the park. I settled in to basketball as my main sport-was captain and point guard on the high school team that my dad coached, and then sat the bench during my freshman year of college.

MomsTEAM: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a sports dad?

Messner: Well, I guess I was a sport dad a few years ago; my sons Miles and Sasha are now 22 and 19 respectively, so the youth sports years are now in my rear-view mirror. When they played youth sports (soccer, basketball, and mostly baseball), I found it most rewarding to drive them to and from practices or games, finding time to talk with them not only about the sport, but about other things as well. Sports provided a context for connection with my boys.

MomsTEAM: What lesson has your sports active child taught you?

Messner: Neither of my sons were great athletes, and I learned something different and valuable from each of them. Miles was one of those kids who not only didn't excel in any sport; he hated it and didn't stay with it beyond about age 8. He was one of those kids in soccer who, when the ball got near him, he'd hesitate, wait for some other kid to swoop in take the ball, and then he'd trot along with the group. Years later, he confided in me that playing Little League was torture for him; he felt humiliated by his continual strikeouts. When I hear parents these days talk about how boys just "naturally" gravitate to sports, I think of Miles and think, "not all boys"; in fact, we chase lots of boys out of sports every year. And I wonder what effect this has on these boys' self-images, and especially on their lifelong physical activity. Maybe we should be offering kids physical activities that are alternatives to competitive sports?

My son Sasha was a kid who loved baseball, but was a below-average hitter. He, too, struck out a lot, but he hung in there through age 14, playing every year. Why didn't he quit, like his brother? I think it was because he was lucky each year to have a good group of friends and usually really good coaches who valued having him on the team, even when he wasn't producing hits or RBIs. He became a positive influence in the dugout, especially during tough losses or difficult times for the "star" players, when Sasha always had positive words for his teammates.

In his final year, a good coach spent extra time with Sasha in the batting cage, and Sasha eventually got some valuable hits that helped his team. So what I've learned from watching Sasha is not just that one can work hard and eventually get some base hits, but more important, that it's the relationships on the team - with the other kids and the coaches - that can make youth sports a fun and positive experience, no matter whether you are a star player, an average player, or even a below average player.

MomsTEAM: If you could "flip a switch" and change one thing about the culture of youth sports what would it be?

Messner: There's been a terrible 'trickle-down' of professionalization and commercialization of sports, starting with pro sports, down through college, high school and into youth sports. Kids' sports today are too adult-organized; kids who show some talent or inclination are pressed to specialize in one sport way too early; parents hire private coaches and pay for travel teams,  I'm not really sure for what.

Based on my experience and on my research as a sociologist, it's clear to me that the most important benefits of playing sports are learning to be physically active and developing positive relationships with others. If I could change youth sports, I would turn back the professionalization of kids' sports, and instead provide opportunities that emphasize these two things: healthy physical activity, and positive, supportive relationships with others.

MomsTEAM: Brag a little: What have you done to make sports better for kids? Please share.

Messner: I did a good deal of assistant coaching when my kids were playing youth sports, but that's really nothing to brag about. Beyond that, I would say that my main contributions have been as a sociologist who studies gender and sports. I've done a good deal of research, written articles and books on the topic, and it gratifies me when athletes, coaches, parents tell me that they found something useful in my work. I guess the two books that would be most relevant to this discussion would be It's All for the Kids: Gender, Families and Youth Sports (2009) and Taking the Field: Women, Men and Sports (2002). One more thing, since you invited me to brag: this past year, I was honored by the California Women's Law Center with their annual "Abby J. Leibman Pursuit of Justice Award" in recognition of my advocacy work for girls' and women's sports.

Michael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California