By Emery O.
Many Americans seem to have memories of playing sports as kids. But according to one recent study, the number of 6 to 12-year-olds taking part in organized team sports dropped from 41.5 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2017. And there was a sharp socioeconomic divide—69 percent of those with household incomes of over $100,000 played organized sports, but only 34 percent of those with a household income of less than $25,000 did.1 This phenomenon can be analyzed using the theory of cultural evolution and practice theory.
The theory of cultural evolution is, in many ways, racist and outdated. Cultural evolution places every society in the world on a scale reflecting level of development, the idea being that any group of people can become civilized (relatively open-minded idea by the standards of the day). A cultural evolutionist might view most sports as a throwback to pre-civilization times. Sports are a form of competition testing strength, speed, and agility; similarly, the strongest and fastest human beings had the edge early on in the history of the human race. Because of this, a cultural evolutionist may view the decreasing participation in youth sports as a sign that American society is becoming more civilized. In particular, the decrease in participation among youth from low-income households would be noted. It would be seen as indicating that people no longer feel that they should rise to the top through physical domination, as people would have done long ago. Instead, the cultural evolutionist would argue, individuals wish to secure an income by working in a more “civilized” profession characterized by less direct physical competition. This phenomenon would indicate, to the cultural evolutionist, that the United States is becoming more civilized and developed.
A practice theory anthropologist, on the other hand, would take a different approach to analyzing the decreasing participation in youth sports. Practice theory focuses on day-to-day life and hegemonies, or social hierarchies, which are perpetuated by a society but also resisted by some individuals. Rather than focusing on a special event such as the Little League World Series, a practice theory anthropologist would focus on the everyday experiences of children participating or not participating in team sports. And a part of that day-to-day life is influenced by socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is an example of a hegemony—although it presents a social hierarchy, few people overtly rebel against it, so it is perpetuated by society. The income divide in youth sports participation illustrates how socioeconomic status forms leads to a hegemony. Children from well-off families are frequently enrolled in high-level travel leagues and are more likely to develop athletic skills that will land them admission to a selective college.1 This means that those who already have opportunities maintain their position of dominance. At the same time, the less fortunate economically do not receive the same opportunities, further reinforcing the hegemony.