Stephen Lintner-Sports and Poverty

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					“Sports and Poverty: Misrepresentations and Truths in the Youth Mentality”

                             Stephen Lintner
                           Poverty Studies 101
                              Dr Gandolfo
                              May 4, 2010
                                                                                            Lintner 2

       The relationship between sports and poverty has become a recent phenomenon plagued

and exacerbated by media influence and the constant pressure of money. Its effects have

augmented the disparity between rich and poor and perpetuated tensions felt by the upper and

lower classes. Without having a firm grip on the consequences of a negative outlook on sport,

youth in poverty, particularly in America, fail to establish a link between the positive tools

learned through the values of sport and the its potential lucrative benefits. Many high school

students see sport as a ticket out of the life of poverty, but misinterpret the success of big name

athletes and overestimate its potentiality for financial security. However, the relationship is not

causational, in that one does not produce or encourage the other. There are immense positives to

the promotion of sport individually, communally, and nationally, including health benefits,

economic potential, and educational motivation. The connection, rather, becomes circumstantial

and dependent on the external influences of corruption, the media, and the socially constructed

formalities of a basic activity. In order to fully understand this recent correlation, we must look

at how society falsely portrays athletic success, how race compounds the negative effects of

these misrepresentations, and how sport, above all else, can positively change the world if used


       To begin, we need to define, within the parameters of a reflection and analysis of poverty,

what sport is. Sport, as defined by Webster’s dictionary, is “a source of diversion, recreation;

physical activity engaged in for pleasure”1. The Toolkit for Sport and Development website

employed by UNICEF defines sport as “all forms of physical activity that promote physical

 "sport," Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2008, (1 April
                                                                                           Lintner 3

fitness, mental well-being, and social interaction”2. Sport stresses core values such as fair play,

cooperation, sharing, and respect. These values, whether we notice it or not, carry over into our

daily lives and manifest themselves in the interactions we have with others every day. For

example, as children, our participation in tee-ball or peewee football teaches basic

understandings of how to interact with a group, cooperate, and respect our opponents. These

values help enforce a strict institution of socially encouraged ideals that we expect in the adult

world. Providing a definition for sport allows for the incorporation of many facets of activity

and value into a holistic investigation of the solution to the poverty problem.

       Despite the positive focus of sport to promote ideals of positivism and cooperation, the

temptations of money, fame, and power have corrupted the purity of an unblemished activity.

Like most things in this world, sport is also subjected to negative influences, intensified by the

media, such as embezzlement of funds in professional sports management, drug and steroid use,

and other forms of criminal activity. The media becomes a problem, specific to poverty, because

it idolizes and brings attention to people who have made millions of dollars through professional

sports and have risen out of poverty to make a name for themselves. These figures in the media

are role models for much of America and their presence in the spotlight subjects them to public

opinion and incrimination, but most importantly, when they break the law or make questionably

immoral decisions, their reputation, fame, and media attention increase drastically. Their status

as products of a system that pays people to perform athletically in competitions encourages an

 Peter Paul Van Kempen, “Poverty” The Next Step. UNICEF, 2008, Web. 29 Mar. 2010, http:/
                                                                                             Lintner 4

emphasis on individual success. However, the question arises: how likely is it that one will be

able to support themselves in a professional sport?

        When young people observe professional athletes wearing Gucci suits, driving Bentleys

and marrying beautiful women, sport becomes a career path rewarded for greatness in the

activities that they participate in with their friends at school or in the neighborhood. Many of

today’s popular icons experienced such financial success in their first year in their sport that the

benefits of focusing on athletics seem to outweigh the desire for a good education. Tiger Woods,

in his first year on the pro tour made $6.82 million, not including his contracts with Nike,

Titleist, American Express, and Rolex, which amounted to $95.2 million.3 Tracy McGrady

waived a college education and went straight to the National Basketball Association out of high

school and accrued $12 million in his contract with Adidas.4 The average professional baseball

player makes $15 million a year in his team contract.5 What we are telling kids is that there is

money in sports and that is what they are seeing on television and in everyday culture. Kids

want to be like the “celebrities” in sports who are making millions of dollars right out of high

school doing things that challenge them physically, but very little mentally and allow them to

maintain a culture of loose professionalism. High school students, especially in poverty, develop

their own version of the “American Dream,” in which they make it big as a professional sports

player and never have to worry about money. The problem, as we’ll see through further research

and statistics, is that the probability of making a living as a professional athlete is extremely

  Stanley D. Eitzen, “Upward Mobility Through Sport? The Myths and Realities,” Sport in
Contemporary Society: An Anthology, 6th ed. (Madison: Worth Publishers, 2001), 256-63.
  Ibid., Eitzen.
  Ibid., Eitzen.
                                                                                               Lintner 5

unlikely and the result of these hopes can be particularly damaging to feelings of self worth and a

positive outlook.

          The three major revenue-earning sports in America are football, basketball, and baseball.

Of the high school players in these sports, only 1 in 736 (0.0014 percent) will actually make it

professionally.6 With statistics so abjectly against the probability of becoming a professional

athlete, it is surprising that so many young people, particularly males, choose to focus their

efforts so exclusively on a sports career. Although there are many reasons for this, the primary

one rests on the fact that these statistics go unreported by the media and mainstream education

and thus are invisible to the younger population. The major media corporations make money on

the viewers who buy advertisements with their companies. They market their industry by

featuring the most fashionable and popular sports icons, so to keep the competition high within

the sport, it is important for them to ensure that the viewers value sports as a lucrative and

important part of society. The effects of this focus of media attention on professional athletes

particularly resonate within the minority communities, which place an emphasis on community

events and activities, as well as sports and popular culture.

          If you turn on the television to any of the major professional sports leagues, it is fairly

obvious that African-Americans make up a large percentage of the population of professional

athletes in the media spotlight. In basketball, 80 percent of players are black; 67 percent of

football players are black, and 18 percent of baseball players are black. There is also a

significant number of Hispanics, mainly from Cuba and Puerto, which make up about 17 percent

    Ibid., Eitzen.
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of the professional baseball players.7 In other words, a huge chunk of professional athletes are

minorities. It is also statistically more likely for African-Americans to make it professionally; 1

in 3,500 black males go professional versus 1 in 10,000 white males who make sports a career.8

On top of that, two-thirds of African-American males between the ages of 13 and 18 believe they

can earn a living playing pro sports (more than double the percentage of whites). 9 Also,

African-American parents are four times more likely than white parents to believe their kids

could make it in the professional leagues.10 All of these factors influence some damaging effects

amongst the young, poor African-American community. The statistics solidify the argument that

within the minority communities, the pressure to succeed athletically becomes paramount in the

mentality to ascend out of poverty.

       When the struggles below the poverty line become overwhelming, young minority males

look to sports to offer them a way out, both in the future and in the immediate relief. The average

black household’s net worth is a tenth that of whites, and African-Americans compose only 10.1

percent of the work force.11 Because of this vast gap in the numbers of blacks in sports versus in

the non-sports jobs, African-Americans (males in particular) see little hope of a job in the “real

world.” They decide at an early age to focus their efforts on sports because that is where they

see the most success. The truth in the matter is that there has been a dramatic rise in the black

middle class since the 1970’s and more and more representation in jobs from journalists to

  Ibid., Eitzen.
  Ibid., Eitzen.
  Ibid., Eitzen.
    Ibid., Eitzen.
   John Simons, “Improbable Dreams: African-Americans are a Dominant Presence in
Professional Sports. Do Blacks Suffer as a Result?” U.S. News & World Report 24 Mar. (1997)
                                                                                             Lintner 7

entrepreneurs to CEOs and marketing. So why is there still such a focus on sports in the young

black community?

        The media, as I’ve already mentioned, takes much of the blame for this by presenting a

largely economic side of the sports industry. However, they also are responsible for hiding the

vast number of minorities in the middle to upper class who go unnoticed by the news and media.

Instead, kids see these minorities in sports and crime, rendering the middle class nearly invisible.

When the majority of minorities in the media are portrayed in news stories involving sex

scandals or weapon possession or the top ten plays of the week, they are not exposed to the

successful African-Americans in working jobs in the middle class. High school students and

young males grow up with a “Be Like Mike” mentality, seeking to emulate the athletic success

of Michael Jordan. Not the college graduate from the University of North Carolina, the

entrepreneur, or the businessman responsible for one of the most popular shoe brands in history,

but the professional athlete slamming baskets and doing “Got Milk?” commercials. The hopes

of these kids making it in an unlikely field create a host of psychological and self-worth

detriments when they do not succeed. These feelings teach kids that they will not succeed in

society in a real job, but have to put all of their eggs in the basket of sport.

        Along with the likelihood to have their hopes let down in the pursuit of a professional

career in sports, most high school males are under the false impression that sport is a ticket out of

poverty. The common myth is that sports can provide financial security for life if you can just

make it to the “big leagues.” As I’ve mentioned, if you make it professionally, the troubles do

not end with the first signing bonus and rookie contract. Most pro athletes leave the sport in

their late 20’s and early 30’s and many of them do not have a college degree, so they’re thrown
                                                                                             Lintner 8

out into the work force with no training or experience. Athletes with no formal training in

anything other than their sport oftentimes find it difficult to adjust to life with routine and a daily

schedule. Since they are traveling during most of the on-season and practicing during the off-

season, they grow accustomed to life on the road and may find regular jobs mundane.12 Also,

there is a high risk of injury in high-impact sports like football, basketball or hockey, which can

leave an athlete unexpectedly out of work and unable to find another job. One of the more

common threats portrayed by the media to financial security is the temptation of having too

much money and not knowing what to spend it on. Many professional athletes run into

emotional and financial problems when under the spotlight for a long period of time and with

access to the type of salaries they receive.13 Sometimes they blow it on drugs or flaunt it to

women and get accused of indecency because they’re targets with money. The amalgamation of

these risks creates for an often-unreliable career that is not as secure as society has led kids in the

projects to believe.

       Another myth holds that sports can provide a college degree. The fallacy of this myth

lies in the distinction between a college degree and college acceptance. Many college athletes

receive partial or full scholarships and acceptance into a university but do not end up graduating.

While the myth remains true for a large number of college athletes, the opportunities in

academics far outweigh the opportunities in sports. National Collegiate Athletic Association

colleges offer $600 million in athletic scholarships each year (a majority of which are partial).14

This number pales in comparison to the $49.7 billion given out from the total pool of money for

    W.M. Leonard, “The Odds of Transiting from One Level of Sports Participation to Another,”
Sociology of Sport Journal 13.3 (2000): 288-99.
    Ibid., Leonard.
   John Simons, “Improbable Dreams.”
                                                                                            Lintner 9

all other awards including minority scholarships and merit-based grants.15 With this significant

of a disparity between where society says the money is and where it actually is, there has to be

some kind of miscommunication between the media and the youth in poverty. If students

understood that there were more opportunities for them to succeed and make enough money to

get out of poverty in academics, then perhaps their focus would shift from such a one-sided

frame of mind. Many college athletes also don’t graduate because of the pressures of

maintaining both grades and sport commitments. Particularly with African-Americans, in 1996

only 45 percent of football players and 39 percent of basketball players in Division I schools

graduated, compared to the 56 percent of the general student body.16 There are many barriers

between the student-athlete and his or her studies that in many cases prevent them from

graduating on time or at all. Some factors include the demanding rigor of managing studies and

athletic practice, even in the off-season. Another occurs when athletes are recruited for their

prowess on the field, rather than their success in the classroom; another when they see their

college experience as only preparation for a professional career.17 Despite a belief that sport can

lead to a college degree, the evidence shows that the reality of this is much more difficult and

rare than perceived by the media and popular culture. The most important point to remember is

that sports are a useful tool for providing opportunities and skills for getting out of poverty, but

they are not as essential as society and the media suggest and they should not be viewed as a

foolproof method for a fast track to superstardom.

       Although I’ve focused most of this paper on the negative consequences on a media-

driven sports industry, sport does contribute largely to the promotion of well-being and positive

   Ibid., Simons.
   Stanley Eitzen, “Upward Mobility Through Sport?”
   Ibid., Eitzen.
                                                                                           Lintner 10

life skills in the world. It has the ability to encourage cooperation and leadership. There is also a

huge potential for economic success within communities because, as a market for entertainment

and merchandise, it provides jobs, ticket sales and revenue, and can also bring media attention to

a tourist area. Along with the economic positives, there are obvious health benefits to sport in

that it keeps you in shape, it prevents obesity, and promotes healthy living habits. Sport also has

the ability to provide protection from gangs, drugs, or bad home lives, keeping kids out of

involvement in these snares. Sport can offer a sense of belonging and inclusion that helps

nurture development in young males in particular; these attributes are often sought out in gang

life and the drug trade. In high school, my football coach, Coach James “Friday” Richards, took

in several players to live with him because their homes were so broken and harmful. During the

school year, they would stay in his house and ride with him to school and practice to avoid

having to take care of their parents who were addicts or convicts. Having a sense of belonging to

a team and a coach helped them avoid gang recruitment and other temptations to achieve a high

school diploma.

         On a more global scale, sport is a universal language and can be understood by everyone,

rich or poor, black or white, Kenyan or Slovenian. Because of its universality, sport is

oftentimes implemented as a peacekeeping measure or encouraged to promote racial tolerance

and ethnic acceptance. During the Kosovo Crisis in 1999, a group of Albanians organized sports

tournaments in 6 refugee camps to help integrate new families and raise awareness about

landmines in the area.18 Similarly, its popularity can give it the power to reach a large number of

people to inform them about philanthropic or humanitarian causes. Numerous organizations use

     Van Kempen, “Poverty.”
                                                                                            Lintner 11

sport in Africa to raise awareness about AIDs and how to prevent the disease that is sweeping a

continent. Through doing this it educates and informs, helping kids stay in school and focus on

their studies. It has been proven that physical activity helps brain development at a young age

and stimulates brain productivity. Because of the ability of sport to promote peace, education,

and well-being, the South African government proposed a bill in 1999 to promote and develop

sports and equality. They established a Sports Commission, which eventually succeeded in

bringing the World Cup in 2010 to their country, bringing huge amounts of tourism and revenue

to their country.19 In the community, there is a growing need for youth-based initiatives such as

the YMCA and local organizations that encourage sports and daily play. Individual sports as

well as team sports offer a sense of belonging, achievement, and camaraderie that contributes to

growth and overall happiness.

         Perhaps the most important and notable positive of sports in the alleviation and

understanding of poverty is its creation of opportunity. Sports, when understood in the proper

context, gives kids the opportunity to experience a feeling outside of poverty. It can be used as

an escape by many to forget about the realities of their daily struggles to make ends meet or as a

way to channel aggression into a healthy outlet. It gives countries the opportunity to rally behind

their team in a competition not for a trophy or pride, but something deeper: hope. Sports provide

opportunities for college education and the possibility of a career path doing something you love.

In Nigeria, the National Coordinator of the National Poverty Eradication Program began a push

in 2006 to find young, talented athletes within the country who can be mobilized, trained, and

     Van Kempen, “Poverty.”
                                                                                         Lintner 12

given the opportunity to get out of their impoverished situations.20 They identified sport as a

“very important tool in the fight against poverty” that should be utilized to foster nationalism and

pride in oneself.21 Although it is vulnerable to the corruptive powers of man and money, sport

creates opportunity, and from opportunity stems hope.

   Abuja Emma Bujah, “How to Alleviate Poverty Through Sports,” The Vanguard, September
27, 2006.
   Ibid., Emma Ujah.
                                                                                   Lintner 13

                                          Works Cited

Eitzen, D. Stanley. “Upward Mobility Through Sport? The Myths and Realities.” Sport in

       Contemporary Society: An Anthology. 6th ed. Madison: Worth Publishers, 2001. 256-63.

       Rpt. in Sport in Contemporary Society. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

Hartmann, D. “Rethinking the Relationship Between Sport and Race in American Culture:

       Golden Ghettos and Contested Terrain.” Sociology of Sport Journal 17.3 (2000): 229-53.


Leonard, W. M. “The Odds of Transiting from One Level of Sports Participation to Another.”

       Sociology of Sport Journal 13.3 (2000): 288-99. Print.

Simons, John. “Improbable Dreams: African-Americans are a Dominant Presence in Professional

       Sports. Do Blacks Suffer as a Result?” U.S. News & World Report 24 Mar. 1997: 46-52.

"sport." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. (8 May


Van Kempen, Peter Paul. “Poverty.” The Next Step. UNICEF, 2008. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.



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