When Play Becomes an Industry

Enclosures of culture are inherently difficult to see because they are so seemingly isolated, gradual and invisible. A great example is the commercialization and commodification of play, one of our most instinctive and important human activities, especially in childhood.

So what happens when a giant octopus of a sports industry begins to professionalize and regiment the natural inclinations of play? What happens when a commercial harness is put around our sense of fun and recreation and goofing-around, so that it can become a powerful money-making machine? What happens to ethics and sportsmanship? What happens to the experience of childhood?

These were among the topics discussed at a small conference convened in September 2009 by the Lake Placid Sport Forum in cooperation with the Aspen Institute. The event was one of the more fascinating side-trips that I have taken as a rapporteur. Coming from a wonky political background, I had never personally encountered so many deeply committed athletes in the same room.












Hanging out at a small conference center and private home in Lake Placid, New York, I met Mark Messier and Mike Richter, two legendary former hockey stars with the New York Rangers. I also met Olympic track star Al Joyner and hockey player A.J. Mleczko, among other serious athletes. While each of these people were incredible physical specimens, they were, more to the point, incredibly committed competitors with an almost spiritual focus on the beauty of sports competitions and play itself.  At the conference there were leading sports journalists from Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Business Week. And there were a variety of coaches at all levels (professional, college, amateur), sports physicians and psychologists, journalists, community leaders and parents.

The goal of the three-day affair was to gather and share insights into some dismaying trends in sports today, and to explore if something constructive might be done. Among the themes: 1) Play as a vital human need; 2) The business of sports; 3) The state of play in youth sports; 4) Ethics and leadership in sports; and 5) Recommendations for future action.

I produced a 27-page report summarizing the themes of the conversation from the meetings on September 25-27, 2009. The hope was that the Lake Placid Sport Forum and its supporters might be able to raise the money to establish a standing, institutional vehicle to advocate for a different vision for sports.  Perhaps they could corral some of the more respected names in sports to try to reclaim the integrity of play in people's lives, or at least, raise a new voice in the Washington policy circles and corporate boardrooms where sports and culture are discussed.

Happily, two years later, something along these lines has materialized. A few months ago, the Aspen Institute launched a Sports & Society Program. The program will be guided by director Tom Farrey, an Emmy Award-winning journalist for ESPN and author of Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children. His work over the years has explored the connections between sport and education, globalization, technology, race, poverty and ethics. The project’s initial focus will be on the barriers that limit widespread participation in healthful sport into and beyond the teenage years.  The website for the project is here. 

One anecdote from the conference has stuck in my head; I opened my report with it. Sports journalist Mark Hyman said that every time the Baltimore Orioles approached Yankee Stadium on their team bus, “Players invariably felt silent, gazing out the window at boys and girls playing pick-up ball on the green fields ringing the major-league ballpark. In my memory, it happened each time the bus passed those sports fields. I’m not sure what the players were feeling – longing, perhaps. Maybe envy. It was unexpressed. Yet I felt it each time. Meanwhile, I imagine the kids on those fields feeling exactly the same things about the big-leaguers.”

The kids idolizing the pros – and the pros longing for a simpler time, when “play” was not a high-stakes celebrity job. One tribe of players consists of well-paid professionals committed to highly competitive careers of “play” -- a commitment to perform athletic feats day after day in a highly regimented, very public environment. The other tribe is a ragged band of friends and acquaintances who show up after work or school for some fun. They’re amateurs enjoying a little physical activity and camaraderie. Their play is spontaneous, casual and improvisational, which is precisely why it is so much fun.

In the chasm that separates the two tribes lies a story of what sports has become in America. It is a story of how play has been annexed by the entertainment industry, how children are prematurely groomed to become high-performance competitors, and how sportsmanship and the integrity of play have been marginalized.

The participants at the conference shared a concern that sports has become over-commercialized, and that this in turn is producing some problematic values and practices among parents and children. Among the troubling trends: the aggressive pre-professionalization of young players, their stratification by skill levels, the increasing injuries caused by too much play, and the “win at all cost” mentality. 

Nowadays talented kids are prepared for sports stardom at an early age, with travel teams for the truly talented and $3,000/week sports camps in the summer.  A growing number of high school baseball players are showing up with a devastating yet preventable elbow injury, the rupture of the ulnar collateral ligament.  And a shocking number of kids are opting for the "Tommy John" surgery, named after the Dodgers' pitcher, in which a tendon from the patient's wrist or leg is used to take the place of a worn-out elbow ligament made useless from too much hard throwing.  This is happening to 15-year-olds.

There was concern, too, that adults and parents have become deeply immersed in their children’s sport experiences, sometimes obsessively so. Kids are losing control over their own play, whether structured or unstructured. Parents are insisting that their kids aim for the most elite and demanding sports leagues, and travel leagues, and that they sacrifice their lives to succeed.  As games become more regimented, demanding and expensive, youngsters are becoming props in the dreams that parents have for them. Children are less likely to reap the “life lessons” that are presumed to result from participating in sports.

The growth of organized sports leagues has gotten so out of hand that many kids no longer know how to play on their own.  Some school districts in affluent school systems actually hire "play consultants" to help elementary school kids learn how to play.  A growing number of academics believe that children's inabilitiy to play may be related to their lack of contact with nature -- or what author Richard Louv has dubbed "nature-deficit disorder."  The problem is reflected not only in higher obesity levels, but in children's diminished ability to engage in self-created and self-regulated play, which entails better cognitive skills and "executive functions" such as solving problems and controlling their emotions and behaviors.

A generation ago, some kids invented new types of "extreme sports" as a way to reclaim free play and escape adult supervision, sports journalist Mark Hyman pointed out.  But now that extreme skateboarding and the like are getting more organized and commercialized, to the extent that top skakeboarders have endorsement deals with major retailers, social zones that once hosted free play have become "enclosed."  It is not clear how to protect free play agains opportunistic businesses or control-oriented parents.

So here's hoping that the new Aspen Institute program can at least shine a spotlight on some of these problems, if not mobilize parents, coaches, athletes and young people to take action themselves.  For more, you can download my report here.