Little League Elitism

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The theory of cultural evolution is, in many ways, racist and outdated.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.

1, accessed 2 March 2019.


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34 Responses to Little League Elitism

  1. Avery Tudor says:

    Very interesting essay! I found it fascinating that you associated the laziness of the human race with civilization. Are humans simply prioritizing education and knowledge over sport and athleticism? Or are we just becoming overall lazier beings obsessed with technology? Or, like you said, the decrease in children from lower income households playing sports may be due to the increasing wage gap. Again, that makes me wonder, is that due to households not being able to afford for their children to play, or is it that they need their children helping out around the house and therefore they don’t have time for it. Very fascinating topic and great ideas!

  2. Paige Riley says:

    Interesting, how did you draw the conclusion that cultural evolutionists would see sports/physical activity as less civilized? Sports, such as the Olympics, seem to have a place in “civilized” society despite its roots in ancient civilizations. I think that your evaluation through the lens of practice theory is spot on, I think it would also be helpful to include that the shifting cultural scripts in the West push toward education. Though the income divide makes it difficult for low-income children to participate in sports, I think it is also valid to say that overall participation is decreasing due to lack of funding for many low-income schools.

  3. Nicholas Cobb says:

    I enjoyed this essay and was a good read into an idea of sports that I had never thought much about before. Your title grabbed my attention to read this article and how sports has shifted into this category. I like the introduction filled with statistics and facts to introduce the reader into background information on your topic. These statistics also create a sense of credibility by displaying that you know the evidence regarding this topic. I found the interpretation from a cultural evolution viewpoint interesting as I had never thought about sports as being uncivilized. However, some view sports as a form of civilization and a privilege to have their kids participate in as well as great traditions carried on in society. The idea of hegemonies being founded in sports is a good idea to introduce practice theory. The economic divides between families creates these differences in skill and status among people. This essay was very well done and I was interested the entire time reading.

  4. Megan Goldin says:

    I never thought about sports being related to pre-civilization times, however your explanation that they represent tests of humans abilities, like strength and speed, which is similar to pre-civilization activities makes a lot of sense. Immediately, I think about events held in the Coliseum and how much of those was based on determining who was strong and who was weak in order to show dominance. I also really enjoyed your explanation of how there may be a decrease in participation due to the fact that our civilization is moving away from valuing physical domination and is instead evolving to value economic status and working in a professional sense instead. I think that could be a very accurate and valid explanation, although it is nothing that I would have thought about before.

  5. John Fitzmaurice says:

    Very Good essay. I was drawn to it because I just started in an intramural softball league, and do see that the older generations are much better. They have all grown up playing, and while old are very serious and very talented. Us younger college guys all seem very bad, as we didn’t grow up playing team sports (I grew up playing tennis) and so are not very good. I think it’s interesting how your observation can be seen very easily in my own, and I’m sure many other students, day to day lives. Nice one. I’m surprised you were going to also evaluate little league through cultural evolution – it’s a hard task, but you put it succinctly. You could also argue using a Marxist approach concerning the income differences for families. But you took on more of a challenge. Hats off.

  6. Ali Copsy says:

    I enjoyed this essay because it brings to light the the ways in which even little league sports is beginning to become divided by class. I have a younger sibling who is just about the age where she can get into sports and I think it will be very interesting to see the ways money impacts the sports even young children like her partake in. I liked the theories you used to connect the essay and the way you explained things especially the cultural evolution theory, because as you mentioned, it is outdated and a bit racist but yet can still be seen in day to day activities and events such as little league.

  7. Nathan Rome says:

    This essay is very interesting because I didn’t know that youth sports participation percentages were dropping. Your cultural evolution perspective is very intriguing because I think sports participation today is correlated with “more superior people” which is the opposite of a cultural evolutionist that thinks sports are more savage. This proves that cultural evolutionists thinking is backward.

  8. Meg Joyce says:

    I grew up playing many sports, so I really enjoyed reading this article and found it very fascinating. It’s unfortunate that children from lower income families don’t get to participate in as many sports. The way you analyzed this from a standpoint of moving up the class scale through physical dominance was very interesting. From my many years of playing on a competitive, traveling soccer team, I can definitely attest to the fact that the team was mostly composed of “higher class” families simply because the cost of uniforms and field reservations and traveling was insanely high. This is a sad reality and I wish all kids could experience these teams no matter their family’s income status.

  9. Lisa says:

    The paragraph surrounding cultural evolution was very well written. I found cultural evolution extremely outdated and therefore unusable. However, you were able to explain this old theory very thoroughly and gave a perspective relevant to the topic. I also thought it was interesting that you viewed people as becoming less active as a evolution, i would have assumed that it would have been a regression.

  10. Emmett Trumbull says:

    This is a great essay! It is very well written, and in terms of addressing anthropological theory, you did an excellent job of explaining the terms. However, I do believe that in order to fully comprehend the idea you present one must look at sports of all ages and skills. One could look at the populations of people that sports broadcasters target to get the most ratings for individual sports. It would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between children playing sports, and watching sports. It seems as though sports tournaments are always a topic of conversation, whether it is March Madness, the World Series, or the Super Bowl. I think this is also relevant to your statement about people developing a lack of competitive attitude, because it seems nowadays people hold their teams very close to their hearts. We might have lost our drive to physically dominate others, but I would argue that we still have the ability to act competitively with people that identify with a different sports team

  11. joe archer says:

    I thought the cultural evolutionary perspective was very interesting. It seems like the older anthropology school would agree with this perspective. I was also interested by your take on practice theory. I really liked how you connected athletic success with academic success and how it can help to support the hegemony.

  12. Chris Shaw says:

    This is a great essay! I really enjoyed how neatly you separated both anthropological terms and gave a descriptive explanation on how they are viewed; and how they perceive youth sports differently with society. I also appreciated the statistics on how much annual income affects the possibilities in youth participation in sports. You initiated the relevance to not only racism, but economic struggles relating to the caste system towards peoples financial category. Another big impact in your writing is the statement of Americans becoming more civilized: this opened my eyes into thinking that sports are becoming more irrelevant for some because of their lack of natural ability with dominance, so they decide to pursue a more realistic goal by going into the workforce instead.

  13. Sandeep Kaushik says:

    The use of a cultural evolutionist perspective is so interesting! Based on your introduction paragraph my first thought was that only the upper class are able to put their children through these sports leagues. But the idea that more people from lower incomes are unable to put their kids through these programs reflects that the majority of America is straying away from little league sports as a whole is super cool. The perspective that this could represent a more evolved society (through this specific lens) is one that never occurred to me, I’m glad you brought this up. Do you think any arguments could be made for sports being more of a leisure activity than a strength competition through cultural evolution?

  14. Paolo Castellon says:

    I agree with most things you are saying except for a few. You mention that low-income families have begun to participate less in sports. Saying that less than 34% of the people in households that make less 25,000 a year play sports. But I feel you have to also mention that our best athletes come from the poorest of people in our society. One of the biggest critcism of the sport of soccer is that it is based on “pay to play”. Making it hard for low-income people to participate fully. Unlike our other sports where a large number of NBA and NFL players come from the poorest of neighborhoods. Bringing me back to my main point that yes you are right, poor families play less sports, but also the best athletes come from poor families.

  15. Prateek Makhija says:

    I like the idea that you had with this topic but there are a few important points that were missed. One of them being is that with sports you also have to look at the evolution though technology within society. In the last 10-20 years technology has evolved rapidly and has had a great deal of influence on sports. Only 10-15 years ago many of us I can guarantee probably played baseball, soccer, basketball, etc. because there wasn’t really anything else to do. We had tv’s but nobody really had cable. Rarely people had video games. Now days people have cell phones and easy access especially the younger generation. With that in mind people are distracting themselves with technology which reduces that number of sports. Also another issue that has been coming into place is concussions. The studies of concussions have increased rapidly and people, especially the parents, don’t want to play contact sports, such as football. This will definitely impact the amount of people playing sports, rather than society becoming more civilized. In fact I also believe that society has become less and less civilized in the last few decades. Even though there is growth I feel that defining society as more civilized is excluding a lot of important factors.

  16. Kody Shugars says:

    I’m really happy that you wrote this essay, I have noticed this change and problem my whole life, One factor of this that I think also plays a big part in this is the actual cost of sports today. I come from a small ski town with large economic inequality and have always seen how money has played a part in youth sports. Many of the popular sports nowadays are very expensive to even get the gear for, and most schools from low-income areas require kids to provide their own equipment, in sports such as skiing, lacrosse, and hockey, your equipment can give you an advantage. When I played club lacrosse in middle school, they would charge us $500 to be on the team, and that’s not accounting for the gear which would most likely cost about $220, and having to drive to and buy hotel rooms for tournaments, that was too expensive for most people, and most low-income kids would need scholarships, and would sometimes be ridiculed for that, and having to use old secondhand gear.

  17. Anna Morelock says:

    I think it’s interesting that you associated the decrease in sports participation with a more civilized society, and I go back and forth with whether or not I agree with you. On one hand (from a cultural evolution perspective), more “savage” societies have to rely on physical strength and skill to survive, and more “civilized” societies use brains and logic to live and thrive. But on the other hand, professional athletes are so highly idolized and paid millions, especially in America, which makes me think that athletes would be categorized as “more civilized” than the average American. Overall, this is an interesting topic to think about.

  18. Collin Lento says:

    I thought this essay was interesting in the fact that it explored the relationship between socioeconomic status and skill within the sport. It is accurate and interesting to think about how money comes into play in kids sports. It fosters growth and development for the youth and puts them in circumstances to succeed, this is different for children with lower economic status. They are not able to afford certain teams or programs to better themselves as a player, thus causing them to fall behind. I never thought of this while playing sports as a kid, but now that I am older and have a world understanding, it has become clear that it is true.

  19. Allison Carson says:

    I grew up playing sports until I came to college, so I thought this essay was really interesting and accurate. It is sad that children are having less opportunities to play sports because it is a huge aspect of learning skill, time management, being a team player, and overall bettering themselves.

  20. Theodore Gonzales says:

    I was quite surprised by your ability to use evolutionary anthropology to describe the phenomenon relating to the decrease in sports participation. I was a little bit confused about your description of socioeconomic status as hegemonic. I think it would help to describe that a little bit more, because typically a hegemonic system can be resisted or there is autonomy within the system, but I don’t think that someone can resist their socioeconomic status, unless you mean that people have the ability to move up and down in their socioeconomic status. Overall very good essay!

  21. Beau Beritzhoff says:

    Really interesting essay! I did not know that the number of kids who participated in team sports was declining. When I was growing up everyone I knew played a team sport of some kind, and I was almost considered “strange” if you didn’t. I really liked how you took cultural evolution theory and analyzed this phenomenon with that theory in a way that made perfect sense. Though we are becoming more civilized as a society, I would hate to see some of the great things that come out of team sports go away. The comradery that comes with sports is something you can’t really experience anywhere else.

  22. Mei-Lin Moody says:

    I think you wrote a really interesting essay that brought a lot of thought into it! It was also written well and you did a great job connecting the terms and theories to the essay topic. I think it’s interesting you mentioned that people who are not engaged in sports could be considered less civilized. Also, it’s interesting that our civilization could be considered more lazy nowadays or it could just be the fact that technology and education could be a more increasing than sports.

  23. says:

    Seeing that team sport participation is declining makes me sad. Sports were a big part of my childhood and I wish everyone got experience thee thrill of sports as a child. Seeing that the participation of these sports is higher for households with higher income should not be surprising. I used to beg my mother to allow me to play hockey, but it wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that the only thing holding my mom back from letting me play was money. Sports can be expensive, and it seems that our current generation of parents would rather spend money somewhere else. I will prioritize sports for my kids because I believe being on a team built leadership, character, and teaches handwork.

  24. William Meeker says:

    I agree with you when you say cultural evolution plays a role in the decrease of children playing sports in that age group. When I was a kid I was influenced to play sports by my parents and nowadays I think parents care less and less. Kids are too focused on technology at that age now. Kids playing Madden or Fifa (sports video games) gives them the idea that they are still playing sports but are missing out on the opportunity to be outside and socializing with other kids their age. This is all due to technology and the way our society has evolved to focus on technology.

  25. Matt Shanahan says:

    Great essay! The title really grabbed my attention as the essay really backs it up. What a crazy statistic of the economic background of these kids. Participation is the biggest thing, but it all boils down to money, which allows the players to develop their skills and get ahead of the competition. Also, how those who don’t participate in sports are looked at as less civilized than the ones that do play in sports. Kids don’t get to reach their full potential all because the price their parents have to pay is not affordable. Great read.

  26. David says:

    I had no idea that there was such an economic aspect to little league. I had always thought this really only applied to college and somewhat to high school. I had always wondered though especially in the current revelations of the people paying colleges to allow their kids in if more of these values are not more present in our society today. I did agree with the article that by having more money and more opportunities these kids would be better able to focus on their skills and develop faster than their adversaries. I also agree with culture evolution that as parents dont push their kids more and more they participate less and less in these sports but also I think baseball in general is becoming less popular.

  27. Logan Dowell says:

    I really enjoyed this article. This essay articulates the connection between socioeconomic disparities within the community. Prior to reading this essay I had the same thoughts about the types of children who play youth sports. In the area that I grew up in was quite affluent and there were limited ways that those with lesser funds could participate. I think that you connected the hegemony and the growth of the children throughout their lives and how youth sports resulted in more opportunities to be successful later in life. The culture that is also associated with higher incomes is very interesting. It is almost ironic that those with more money, and theoretically more civilized, are more invested in the physical lifestyle that is associated with “traditional” aspect of civilization. I believe that it is also becoming more centered around the children’s choices whereas prior to this phenomena it was more about the parent’s preferences and what sports they want their children to play.

  28. lodpod says:

    The analysis of a cultural evolutionist perspective brought about a concept that would have never crossed my mind, that the decrease in sports participation is creating a more “civilized” society. This is interesting because civilized participation in a community, in this case the sports community, could be seen as influential to the society to become more “civilized” or “developed”. But, with understanding that sports are competitive by nature and test the human physical limits, it is evident that they also have the capability to pit communities against one another. I liked this article a lot because you did an a great job bringing in a sociological approach to understanding the economic disparities that riddle our society.

  29. Isabella Parker says:

    I thought this was an interesting piece because I don’t know much on the subject. I don’t know much about little league baseball but I did not that there was disparates on the economic front. It is sad that something that is supposed to be fun for little kids is being infected by money. The kids are just trying to have fun and learn valuable social lessons. I mean it’s little league for crying out loud. It also shows that kids can no longer just be kids anymore because there is always another agenda at work with everything they do. It makes complete sense why the cultural evolution decreases participation in sports given the social implications listed in the piece. Overall the piece was very enlightening .

  30. Chase Loisel says:

    Although the decrease in the amount of children playing sports could be explained by changes to hegemonic social structures and expectations, I would think the radical shift would more reasonably be explained by the development of information technologies. As information technologies have advanced so quickly over the past decade unseen (moors law) to the point of being common household goods, people are likely spending more time on media sources or devices as a choice rather than the change being due to some change in societal expectations. Over time the competitive aspects of sports can be replicated within online games meaning this aspect of sports is not necessarily unique either. Although this would be more realistic, the socioeconomic divide between children playing sports could be explained more accurately through a hegemonic explanation as social expectations vary within different classes of wealth in a society.

  31. David Rathbun says:

    This is a very interesting take on a very unfortunate statistic. Sports were such a big part of my childhood and your opinions on socioeconomic status correlating with skill level and participation make sense. I always thought sports were one of the easiest ways for people to quickly jump the social ladder, but with less and less people being able to afford to play in the first place, then their chances of going pro and creatinf a career goes down. The rich keep getting richer and jts important to shine light on this subject so we can try and make sports more affordable

  32. Jenny Granston says:

    The approach to sports from an evolutionary perspective fascinated me– and it always has. However, I think an interesting question to be posed from this essay would be: are children active agents in this equation? Or do they function solely as cultural ‘pawns’ through whom societal values, along with their parents preferences, are expressed? What role do these players actually ‘play’ outside of organized sports– are they at all aware of the socioeconomic undertones of the organized sports world or are they clueless participants in the hegemony you refer to?

  33. I’ve actually done a bit of research on the dropping levels of young athletes, and so I was excited to read about what you thought! You did a great job explaining your thoughts with cultural evolution, it was very clear and concise, and I thought you transitioned well from point to point. I particularly liked the opposition that practice theory presented to cultural evolution. You picked your theories well, and I ended up learning quite a bit about some of the intersectional reasons behind why and where countries play sports. I didn’t realize how much socioeconomic status has on youth sport turnout; as I had done quite a bit of research on the effects of parents being afraid of traumatic brain injury. You might enjoy looking at that data. Overall, great paper. I learned a lot and was interested all the way through.

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