It’s my favorite time of year: The Little League World Series is on ESPN. I love sports, so of course watching the home runs and strikeouts and double plays is a joy. But what’s really special about the Little League World Series is the moments of sportsmanship.

Take, for example, the time when a batter hit in the head by a ball came off of first base to console the pitcher who hit him. 

Or when a coach thanked his team after a devastating loss for playing with pride, filling their home state with joy and in the process forging friendships that would last for the rest of their lives.  

The stoic philosopher Seneca said, “While we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity.”

Sports is one of the best ways to do that. 

I’ve watched this process from the sidelines for many years. Both of my boys play travel sports, and, during baseball and basketball season, I spend anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week at practices or games, or driving to or from one of them. It’s a commitment.

And here are the kind of moments that make it worth it.

We’re down one with 10 seconds left. The inbounds pass goes to the wrong guy. My son, somehow, slices through the defense and gets the ball. Too many dribbles, I think to myself, time is running out. Or maybe I didn’t think that to myself; maybe I screamed it out loud. And then, he sees just a little daylight and lets the ball fly. It goes in. Bucket. We win!

It wasn’t an exact replica of the Michael Jordan shot that defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989, but it was close. 

I went up to coach Joe afterwards and exclaimed, “That was amazing.”

“Not really,” he said. “We practice those plays. We prepare for moments like that.”

My son was in fourth grade at the time, and the coach was talking not about the magic of the moment, but the painstaking preparation that made it possible.

The growing sports gap
Perspective: Ray Romano and the dilemma of every sports parent

That’s one of the reasons I think sports is great for kids.

And here’s another reason.

We had an 8–3 lead going into the second-to-last inning of a Little League baseball game. My son, the best pitcher on the team, was on the mound. I looked at my watch and figured we’d be on the road in 15 minutes. This one was as good as over.

And then a tragedy of errors ensued. A dropped third strike allowed a runner to get to first base. A missed fly ball in right field loaded the bases. A bad throw to home plate made the score 8–6.

My son started slumping his shoulders, throwing up his arms, shooting accusatory looks at his teammates.

The coach took him out of the game and sat him on the bench. And then after we (inevitably) lost the game, the coach called him out in the team meeting. “Our pitcher can’t lose his cool on the mound when times get tough. He needs to stay calm and lead the team.”

That’s another reason I have my kids in sports — to have adults who are not his parents hold him accountable to a high standard.

In so many ways, sports reinforce the best lessons of religion. Daily discipline prepares you for breakthrough moments. You have responsibilities to your team and community. Do your best to be your best. Rules matter. Respect matters. Fairness matters.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m part of the economic class that allows my sons the privilege to play in travel leagues. As reported in the Deseret News earlier this year, wealthy families can burn their kids out with travel sports, but the real injustice is that the new culture of athletics leaves so many poor families out of the game.

One of the tragedies of our era is that virtually all high-quality youth sports are now pay-to-play. When I was growing up in the early 1990s in the western suburbs of Chicago, park districts, YMCAs and public schools all had excellent athletic programs. They were capacious enough to allow average athletes like me to play on the B team while also preparing the most talented kids for Division I college competition. 

Those days are gone. High-quality athletics are now almost entirely class based. If your family has the time, the money and the organization, you can play. If you are like most Americans, you are left out.       

View Comments

In his book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Robert Putnam discusses the ugliness of inequality in American life and highlights the class divide in athletics and extracurriculars as especially odious. He writes, “America invented extracurricular activities precisely to foster equal opportunity … (they are) a near perfect tool to address this problem — as close to a magic bullet as we are ever likely to find in the world of social, and educational, and economic policy.”

Every kid should have the opportunity to benefit from athletics the way that my kids have. As Putnam writes, this is an issue that community leaders and everyday citizens can impact: “Visit your school superintendent — better yet, take a friend with you — and insist that pay-to-play be ended. And while you’re there, ask if there are things that you could do to help the local schools serve poor kids more effectively, both in the classroom and outside.”

There are a lot of social problems out there that are highly complicated to solve. Expanding youth sports is not one of those. We know exactly what we need to do to make sure that every kid has an opportunity to develop their talents and character through sports the way that mine have. It’s incumbent on us to do it.

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.”  

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.