“Take that, old man,” my son said to me after a smashing hit during our recent tennis match. Through my chuckling, I thought, “All right. Game one, young man, game on.”
Thankfully, his comment was good-natured ribbing, but it still made me wonder if playing sports was making him more aggressive and less respectful. At the same time, though, I had visions of him winning Wimbledon.
What father wouldn’t want that—fame, glory, and money? The top tennis player, Roger Federer, for example, makes close to $50 million a year when his off-court earnings are included in the sum, reports Forbes.com.
From the recent NFL draft, it is also easy to see that being an athlete can be highly lucrative. Forbes.com estimates that Jared Goff, the number one draft pick in 2016, will earn over $25 million with the LA Rams.
But, then, reality sets in. My son is not Roger Federer or Jared Goff, and the percentage of high school athletes that make it into the professional leagues is super low—less than a half of percent. Those are not good odds.
So, is there any worth in having our male and female youth play sports, even in terms of making money? Some social scientists would say: yes!
Through empirical research, the sociologist Carl Stempel found that high school athletes earned more money as adults in their non-sports-related occupations than non-athletes, arguing that the difference was due to athletes acquiring an important form of cultural capital—which represents a type of social knowledge that can be exchanged for socioeconomic success in society.
The idea is that sports participation increases a person’s leadership skills, toughness, self-confidence, and understanding that expertise only comes through diligent practice, as well as the socially important ability to interact effectively with authority figures and teammates. All of these qualities can be transferred to the workplace.
Professor Kevin Kniffin, and his colleagues, found that some of these traits even lasted sixty years later, and predicted a higher likelihood of prosocial behavior at older ages compared to non-athletes, such as volunteering time and donating money to charity.
What the social science research suggests, therefore, is not that sports participation will directly help our teenagers earn money like the Roger Federers and Jared Goffs of the world, but that it will develop in them the knowledge and skills that will help them do better in school and in a job and that will increase their chances of graduating and getting hired and promoted.
At the same time, expanding somewhat beyond the data, these findings imply that it is not only sports participation that can foster such socioeconomically productive attributes. Participation in any organized activity can do it—dance, drama, band, book club, the school newspaper, or something else. The point is to expose our youth to authority figures, colleagues, and the opportunity to build their confidence and resilience. They’ll take those cultural skills into college and the labor market.
So, maybe it’s all right to endure a little ribbing from our teenagers on and off the court if it means that they are in the difficult process of developing the characteristics and abilities that will lead to their future success as adults.
About Justin – Justin Allen Berg is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Dakota. He teaches courses on aging and gets real life experience at home with three energetic kids.
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