Alternative Explanations for Socioeconomic Inequality in Youth Sports | A Summary

Mads Skauge1 & Arve Hjelseth2
1 Nord University, Norway; 2 Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim

There is an evident socioeconomic gradient in organized youth sports: The more financial and cultural resources (capitals) in young people’s homes, the greater the chance of participating in sports. There are also many indications that sports inequalities have become increasingly pressing in recent years. The development is probably due to both general societal changes (greater disparity between the affluent and the non-affluent) and changes within the field of sports. Regarding the latter, it has been pointed out that increasing professionalization (academies, paid coaches, and more expensive facilities and fees), greater demands for parental involvement (sports participation is to a greater extent determined by the parents’ ability to involve), and the rising “seriousness” of youth sports (more exercise, talent identification, etc.).

The public discourse and narrative about sports participation and dropout is often based on family finances as a barrier. However, there is little to suggest that finances are an absolute barrier to sports participation for most young people. Sports being too expensive is one of the least emphasized reasons young people state for not participating. Rather, the main reasons are about inner motivation and leisure priorities, especially applying to girls. Statistics Norway (SSB) estimates that exclusion from organized leisure activities due to tight family finances affects two percent of Norwegian families with children up to and including 15 years of age.

However, when 93% of all children and young people under the age of 19 in Norway have participated in organized sports during their upbringing and/or adolescence, other explanations are also required to understand the general socioeconomic inequality. There are significant differences in sports participation also among the 90% who do not live in families with persistent low income. Resources other than the purely economic ones are therefore also important when socioeconomic inequality in sports participation is to be explained, even though these in turn may be related to economic inequality. Although research has examined (empirically) how different forms of cultural and social capitals affect sports engagement, how to explain them (theoretically) has been less discussed.

We draw on a set of theoretical concepts (eclecticism) that we consider relevant to shed light on socioeconomic inequality in sports participation. Consequently, it is primarily through our theoretical perspectives that the article is intended to contribute to the particular field of research concerned with youth sport, class, and inequality. We ask how familiarity with sport’s competitive logic and sports parental involvement can contribute to the socioeconomic inequality in youth sports.

First, we study the importance of being familiar with the competitive logic of sport: competition and achievement as the basic elements of sport. In the analysis of how familiarity with sports logic can affect the socioeconomic sports gradient, we draw parallels between sports and school by arguing for their overlapping logic, and examine how the class-related variable school performance is related to sports participation. To explain socioeconomic variations in familiarity with the logic of sport and school, we make use of Engström’s Bourdieu-inspired concept of sports habitus, preferences for sports.

If sports policies are to succeed in combating social differences (both gender and class) in sports participation, it may mean that sport must tone down its uniqueness (competition and performance).

Second, we investigate how parental involvement in sports—which, like school performance, increases with socioeconomic status—affects the socioeconomic sports gradient, that is the significance of parental involvement for inequality outcomes. When it comes to involved parenthood in sports, namely how young people’s parents engage in their children’s sports practices, we rely on Coleman’s studies of social capital for education, which in our case are transferred to sport as social capital for sport: how class-related social support from parents can contribute to the socioeconomic sport gradient.

The paper is based on the Ungdata survey and an interview with a sports council representative involved in a local integration project for young people in families with tight finances. As a contextual framework, we refer to how inequality and exclusion are normally understood in the sociology of sport (referring to the likes of Hovden, Collins, and Spaaij, respectively).

The results reveal that both familiarity with the sports logic (Bourdieu) and parental involvement as social capital for sports (Coleman) are associated with socioeconomic resources. This is in line with previous research, but we have tried to theorize these variables and components in more detail, also by means of interview data and by identifying mechanisms that can shed light on the statistical relationships (correlations).

A more practical question stressing the implications of the article, is what such results imply for sports policies. It is a sports policy question to what extent organized sport should place greater emphasis on other aspects of sport than the logic of competition. Less focus upon competition and achievement (downscaling competitiveness) could make sport participation more attractive for a greater part of the youth population (not only the competition-minded), especially for girls since they state a lack of competition orientation as an important reason for dropping out. In addition, it seems that girls place more emphasis on body and health as exercise reasons (why they work out). This constitutes a sporting dilemma. If sports policies are to succeed in combating social differences (both gender and class) in sports participation, it may mean that sport must tone down its uniqueness (competition and performance). In this way, it can be an attractive alternative also for the less competitive, where the majority are girls and young people with scarce socioeconomic resources.

An ambition in further research might be to analyze several dimensions of social inequality simultaneously in order to understand how these interact. An intersectional perspective, where categories such as gender, ethnicity, class, and age are included, can deepen the understanding of sports participation. In a socioeconomic perspective, class and gender can interact, as for example the sports council representative points out is the case when some (minority) parents navigate in the field of sport:

When parents with tight finances make priorities with respect to their children’s sports activity, boys are often prioritized because some parents believe sports to be best suited for boys.

A topic for further research is therefore also whether the gender differences in sports participation are greater in families with tight finances. In that case, girls in families with tight finances are particularly vulnerable for exclusion from sports, which implies that the socioeconomic sport gradient is most evident for girls.

Copyright © Mads Skauge & Arve Hjelseth 2021

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