Joco Opinion

Danedri Herbert — Youth sports solicitations are shaking the wrong money tree

There’s a competitive arms race in youth sports, and everyone is expected to subsidize it.

I hate to be a Scrooge, but I can’t figure out why every grocery shopper in Johnson County is supposed to fund the travel, recreation and uniforms of upper middle class children on competitive sports teams.

The search for spaghetti squash last weekend took me to two grocery stores. Members of private, competitive athletic teams — one a youth football team, the other a competitive baseball team — were stationed at both entrances. There, attractive children in fancy uniform shirts offered to sell me a hot dog in exchange for a donation to their sports team.

I already contribute heavily to children’s activities. My property taxes are used by the school district, which offers sports in junior high and high school, the city offers several seasons of youth sports, and the county parks department gets a chunk as well.

For example, the Johnson County Park and Recreation District collects more than $14 million annually in property (and other) taxes. The department receives about 2 percent of the taxes paid by Johnson County homeowners each year. Most events and programs are funded through user fees, but property owners subsidize the county's park and recreation department.

For the most part, I don’t mind. The public benefits from youth athletics and recreational activities. According to the Kids Play USA Foundation, kids who participate in sports are less likely to go to prison, join a gang, abuse alcohol, get pregnant or have discipline problems in school. They’re more likely to graduate from high school, become business and political leaders and contribute to charitable programs as adults.

In a perfect world, parents would be solely responsible for raising well-rounded kids who become great citizens. Here in reality, though, there are some parents who abdicate that responsibility.

But those kids begging for cash at the grocery store aren’t part of a city parks baseball program. They belong to private, tryout-only, tournament teams. They are largely the children of upper middle class parents who allow their kids to try out for a sports team knowing the annual fees will be between $1,500 to $2,000. Don’t get me started on the Lincoln Escalade, pulling the hot dog grill at which I was accosted last weekend. I don’t begrudge their children special opportunities, but I can’t fathom asking strangers to help pay for them through donations.

Kids can get the benefits of youth sports participation for much less than those tournament teams cost. The fees for Johnson County Park and Recreation youth soccer this fall ranged from $67 to $80, depending on the league with a $15 fee for a jersey. Scholarships are available for those who can’t afford it.

I’m confused as to why these tournament teams behave as if they are charitable organizations. They’re not providing selfless acts to better the world.

Most of the athletes are not gaining experience for future employment. There just aren’t that many Bubba Starlings, the Gardner baseball phenom turned Royals first-round draft pick, in the world. The fundraising these teams do isn’t even preparing the youths for the business world.

Standing at a store entrance shaking a can in my face offering me a hot dog, the athletes aren’t providing a service I need or want. I came to the grocery store to stock my pantry — not to eat lunch or to purchase soccer uniforms for strangers.

The kids raising funds for tournament fees aren’t even buying access to the romanticized innocence of youth either. Youth sports no longer resemble the sandlot with used, oversized baseball gloves and cut-off jean shorts.

Youth sports are big business. For example, PepsiCo paid $2 million to be the exclusive drink contract vendor at an Indiana youth sports complex. Meanwhile, Little League International will earn $60 million in television rights care of ESPN.

If upper middle class parents want to participate in the arms race that is youth sports, go ahead. But leave poor unsuspecting grocery shoppers out of it.