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Michael J. Critelli Headshot

The Good, Bad and Ugly About the Commercialization of Amateur Sports

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Several events have caused me to think about creeping sports commercialization: the increasingly lucrative NCAA tournament and the increasing sense that college basketball is a one-year commercial way station for athletes on the way to professional basketball; Barry Bonds' perjury trial relative to his use of performance-enhancing drugs; business-sponsored teams beginning spring baseball practice; and continuing publicity about sports concussions.

Commercialization enables many people to participate in otherwise unaffordable recreational sports. Local businesses like the Baskin & Robbins store and Dunkin' Donuts franchises have long enabled young people to secure uniforms and be part of sports teams.

Commercialization enables retired, but still famous, athletes to supplement meager post-career earnings. I was thrilled to meet Lee Elder, the first black golfer invited to participate in the Masters Tournament and one of the most inspiring and courageous athletes in the 20th century, at the NAACP Celebrity Image Awards Golf Challenge at which we showed clips of From the Rough.

I do not begrudge professional team owners or athletes the economic rewards they have secured. Professional sports are of high quality and are great entertainment.

However, commercialization has many ugly sides, some old, some new. Sports betting is more financially lucrative than the sports themselves. We will never eliminate its lure. The use of performance-enhancing substances has always been with us, and probably always will be: Too much money is at stake. I support efforts to curb cheating through substance abuse, because it does permanent damage to users, but eliminating performance-enhancing substances is unlikely.

Sadly, violence is also likely to remain a permanent part of the sports landscape, although we can make rules changes that, over time, reduce its severity and frequency. While most publicity is about concussions, with baseball recently creating a 7-day disabled list for concussion victims, the cumulative impact of years of violence to athletes' bodies is a more serious issue. I directly support research to enable us to understand the multiple causes of neurological damage from violent hits to the head.

The commercialization that troubles me is what has crept into youth and college sports. In recent years, ESPN has broadcast the Little League baseball playoffs and World Series. It spotlights young pitchers who throw curve balls that significantly increase the risk of permanent arm and shoulder damage. Commercialization radically changes the economic benefit of winning for the young athlete, the coaches and parents. An adult can decide to risk injury to his or her body; an 11-year-old should not be pushed to use athletic techniques that create injury risks he does not understand.

College basketball and football, both revenue-producing sports, effectively rent star players for one year, secure significant revenues for college programs, showcase players for professional teams, and help coaches secure multimillion dollar salaries. They do not secure educations, as evidenced by the University of Connecticut men's basketball team's 30% graduation rate. Michael Sokolove wrote about this in a recent article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, entitled "Is It Dunk and Done for Perry Jones?," in which he said that college basketball may not matter any more. Great college basketball players like Bill Bradley of Princeton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of UCLA, and Pat Riley of Kentucky, who got college degrees, had great professional basketball careers, but had even better post-basketball lives due to their education.

George Dohrmann recently wrote about basketball's commercialization for boys as young as 9 years old in his book Playing Their Hearts Out. He followed a cohort of 20 boys and their families and coaches in Southern California over eight years. Some boys ended up having great college experiences, but there were avoidable tragedies, including one boy who was housed with a pedophilic coach and became a convicted criminal because of the commercial opportunity his mother found too good to pass up.

One characteristic of creeping sports commercialization among young athletes is that it distorts, or even destroys, people and institutions it touches. College admission programs select poorly educated athletes who stay in college for 1-2 years, instead of highly qualified students who could help us overcome our global competitiveness gaps in science, business, and education. Organized youth sports programs displace more broadly based recreational sports programs. Adult-led commercialization exacerbates the competitive tendencies of young athletes to risk injuries by raising the economic stakes of success.

This is a time to celebrate great athletic performances; it is also time for reflection on sports' roles in young peoples' lives.

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