In order to improve international competitiveness the United States Soccer Federation has decided to modify the club team system in a way that prevents young athletes from playing for their high school teams. According to a recent N.Y. Times article, this decision has caused some controversy, not least because it highlights a conflict in youth sports between the priorities of athletic and educational development. The club teams claim that they are at least as committed to players’ education as the schools are.
Is there any special educational benefit to playing sports on school teams as opposed to club teams? One may be the experience of representing one’s school and local community. Although college and professional players rarely hail from the places they play for, high school athletes generally do and, as H.G. Bissinger’s great book Friday Night Lights illustrates, participation in these teams makes youngsters aware of their membership in and responsibility to local communities. Though Bissinger’s book is about football in Texas, the experience of other high school athletes contains similar lessons—albeit on a less intense scale.
To be sure, many (if not most) young athletes are motivated by dreams of professional and international play. They are willing to sacrifice the chance to represent their schools, in the hopes of someday representing their country. But there is an extremely small probability that their professional dreams will be realized. Youth sports need to offer some additional benefit to the overwhelming majority of young athletes they serve. This is true even of development clubs sponsored by pro teams and national federations. The question is whether the more-focused club system in fact has educational benefits equivalent or superior to those of high-school teams—or are they selling out the masses in order to feed the professional leagues?
by Heather Reid