It takes more than athletic talent to play varsity sports in college, at least for most young people, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that U.S. high-school athletes were much more likely to play sports in college if they came from higher-income families with well-educated parents and attended wealthier schools.
About 14% of 10th grade students whose families were in the top 20% in terms of socioeconomic status played sports in college — compared to fewer than 4% of those in the bottom 20% of socioeconomic status.
Among those who became 12th grade athletes in high school, a marked difference still remained: 23% of the most privileged students played college sports compared to 9% of the least privileged students.
The results contradict the traditional story of how sports often help underprivileged kids succeed in American society, said James Tompsett, co-author of the study and graduate student in sociology at The Ohio State University.
“The idea of sports as a true meritocracy where the best athletes on the field will succeed is largely a myth,” Tompsett said.
“A privileged background helps students succeed in sports just as it does in other parts of life.”
Tompsett conducted the study with Chris Knoester, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State. Their research was published Aug. 27, 2021 in the Sociology of Sport Journal.
Most sports fans can rattle off the names of star professional athletes who have had great success despite coming from impoverished backgrounds, Knoester said.
“These are heartwarming stories, but they are not representative of the vast majority of college athletes, nor are they indicative of who is able to make it to the highest levels of sports, typically,” he said.
This is the first study to comprehensively look at the factors, from family situations to high school experiences to school conditions, that impact the likelihood of individual high-school students becoming college athletes.
The researchers used the Education Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative data set from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Researchers used data on 7,810 students, just over half of whom reported playing sports in 10th grade in 2002. The ELS conducted follow-up surveys in 2004, 2006 and 2012. In the 2006 survey, participants were asked whether they were participating in college varsity athletics.
The survey also collected information on each student’s family socioeconomic status in 10th grade, which was based on family income and parents’ education and occupations. Information on the schools the participants attended was also available.
Overall, about 8% of the students indicated that they played varsity sports in college when they were surveyed in 2006.
The fact that students from the most privileged backgrounds were more than three times as likely to be college athletes as those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds is no surprise, the researchers said. It is in line with previous research that found poorer youths don’t have access to the same athletic and academic resources as their more fortunate peers.
“Students whose families can afford private training, who can enroll in private club sports, have a big advantage over students whose families can’t provide that for their children,” Tompsett said.
And students from wealthier families have academic advantages that make them more likely to be able to attend college, including greater expectations that they will continue their education.
Findings showed that students attending financially poorer schools were also less likely to play college sports, independent of their family’s situation.
One reason is that more wealthy schools provide better academic preparation, Knoester said. But they also have better athletic facilities and tend to offer more opportunities and sports, such as lacrosse, that aren’t available at other schools.
“Students from wealthier families, on average, are given more academic and athletic resources, have higher expectations of going to college, are more likely to be expected to go to college by others, and are situated in a more optimal school environment, all of which make it more likely they will go on to play sports in college,” Knoester said.
All of this doesn’t mean that athletic ability and merit in high school don’t matter, he said. Results showed clearly that athletic merit was a strong predictor of participating in collegiate sports.
“But even at equal levels of athletic merit, those students from a more advantaged background are more likely to become college athletes,” Knoester said. “Socioeconomic status matters.”
Sports are often viewed as a particularly important way for Black people and other minorities to achieve success, he noted.
But this study showed that, even for Black students, those who come from more advantaged backgrounds were more likely to play sports in college.
Most of the examples of Black athletes rising from poverty to become sports stars come from football and basketball, sports which only a small proportion of all college athletes play. In addition, most college athletes compete outside of the top division that attracts most of the attention of the media and sports fans, Knoester said.
“There will be individual cases of athletes rising from poverty to become successful sports stars, but they are a tiny minority,” he said.
“Wealth and privilege are important to succeeding in sports just as they are in other parts of society.”