“Sports and Poverty: A Correlation in Recent

“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, http://www.merriam-webster.com (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.
Lintner 6
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 offseason, 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 mediadriven 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. http://www.merriam-webster.com (8 May
Van Kempen, Peter Paul. “Poverty.” The Next Step. UNICEF, 2008. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.