Sports and Society: Can Sports Be an Effective Path out of Poverty for Youth?

Justin Goldman@JGoldmanASUCorrespondent IDecember 22, 2011

Quick Note: This is a research-based paper I wrote for my English 101 class at Arizona State University. Focusing on Hoop Dreams I take a look at the paths of Arthur Agee and William Gates in Chicago's Inner City. I then go onto critically analyze the claim the movie makes while also finding information to support that claim. It's quite a bit of a read (seven pages double-spaced), but bear with me and I hope you will enjoy it. I'll try and break up all the paragraphs so they're easier to read. 

Sports are the present…and the future. No, not the future of everything, but a present and future advocate for social and cultural change. They have been around for thousands of years in one form or another. Sports have been a part of human life since the Greeks and they have constantly evolved with the times, people, society and culture.

The film Hoop Dreams is an archetypal example of the comingling of sports, society and culture. This film follows two young men who use their exceptional basketball talent to aspire to get out of poverty, and through strife and setbacks they struggle to succeed for the good of their families and themselves. Hoop Dreams provides substantial evidence that sports can be a path out of poverty for minorities. When 16.4 million children under 18 live in poverty, it really shows how difficult it can be to buck the odds and succeed.

Throughout modern times, athletes have long used sports as a means to get out of a life of poverty. Whether it be Joe Frazier making it out of the slums of North Philadelphia or Marshall Faulk getting out of the Desire projects in New Orleans, sports have long proven to be a route out of poverty into a life of fame and fortune. While many young people aspire to succeed in sports as a means to change their lives, it's not always reliable.

Less than two percent of all high school athletes go on to play professional sports (National Poverty Center). But this does not stop athletes from dreaming. As demonstrated in Hoop Dreams, making it big is just part of the ride. The hardships that athletes must go through in order to truly make it out of poverty are immense. From old friends wanting a “cut” of the money to possibly reverting to the “ghetto” attitude of wanting to spend the money as soon as you get it, there are a lot of obstacles along the way. But making it through that really shows how sports can help impoverished people dream, and eventually lead a better life.

But to fully understand why sports can be such a good push out of a life of poverty, first you need to truly understand how bad poverty is. With the over-16.4 million children living in poverty, nearly 50 percent will spend more than half of their lives below the poverty line.

And even more towards sports, minorities are two-and-half-times more likely to spend the greater part of their childhood in poverty, substantially limiting their opportunities and forcing them to look to sports as a way to get out (Childhood Poverty Persistence: Facts and Consequences). And minorities who grew up in poverty are twice as likely as their counterparts to even receive a high school diploma. This leads to them being half as likely to be consistently employed as an adult.

By just looking at basic numbers it becomes abundantly clear why many young impoverished people turn to sports. Not only for the dreams of living large and having money, but because it keeps them out of trouble.

Part of sports becoming a real tool to get children out of subpar lives is the ability to keep them out of trouble and away from a life of crime. According to Fair Play for Children sports play a massive role as a dynamic tool to prevent crime among youth. In Canada, over the last decade, youth participation in sports has dropped by nearly 10 percent, while crime rates have grown rapidly. This approach of trying to get at-risk youth involved in sports is not only local, but also global.

London’s 2012 Olympic board made it a goal to get at-risk youth more involved and even demonstrated how it worked in the past, citing gold-medalist Sebastian Coe, who repeatedly has given credit to sports for helping him stay out of trouble and crime. The popular website crimepreventiontips.com tells parents to get their children involved in sports not only because it takes up their time and keeps them out of trouble, but because it helps them become more social and to better cooperate with others and not get in trouble. Many young athletes end up in sports because they see their favorite stars making millions of dollars.

As sports have increased in popularity, so too have the star athletes. Players are now viewed as celebrities and, much like movie stars, can barely be seen in public without being mobbed by hundreds of adoring fans. This is a feeling many young people look up to and wish to attain. While this may seem like it would not have much pull on social or cultural change, it is quite the opposite.

Many famous athletes grew up in a rough environment so many impoverished kids feel they can relate to it. This leads them to want to get involved with sports and work on their skills so they can make it professionally and lives as comfortably as their idols did while they were playing. Superstar athletes play such an important role in kids' lives that many times they will do anything to emulate them, from wearing their number while playing to even asking for their actual jersey as a gift.

Children love to represent their favorite players, and more times than not that player is the best on their team and a league star. Sales of jerseys total in the millions for the four major sports league (NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB) and star power can be seen in most purchased jerseys. LeBron James, two-time MVP, who grew up in a life of poverty in the rough area of Akron, Ohio was the number-one selling NBA jersey (Rovell 1). This can be accredited to team success and individual success that many kids want to strive for and daydream about.

Hoop Dreams is one the most revered sports documentaries of all time. Following the life of two young budding hoop stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee living in the housing projects of Chicago, their struggles out of poverty are recorded. Sports provide a way out, yes, but not without a lot of struggle along the way. One idea that becomes relevant very quickly is the exploitation of star African-American athletes. But it also leads to better opportunities for them.

For instance, in the film, the boys are recruited to play basketball at St. John’s High School, which is predominantly white. But when Agee does not develop as the coaches hoped, his scholarship is quickly dropped, thrusting him back into poor public high schools. And on the dark side of sports as a way of getting out of the ghettos, when Agee loses his scholarship and receives little to no help, it causes him much emotional and psychological pain, making him vulnerable again to a life of crime (Cipriano 79). But even through all the hardships, sports helped lead both men to a much better life they could have only dreamt of living.

Agee went on to star at Arkansas State University and eventually start his own clothing line, public speaking business and star in the movie Passing Glory. Gates went on to receive a scholarship to Marquette University and eventually became a real-estate agent and pastor, giving back to the community he grew up in. While neither man lived their ultimate dream to make it to the NBA, sports kept both men out of trouble in a rough area and helped them to lead successful lives as adults.  

While sports do give many athletes a path out, it is not really evident for them until they are done with their education. The Daily Finance wrote an article showing how many college athletes’ families are still forced to live in poverty. This is why recently talks of paying college athletes has become such a popular topic.

The average football or basketball athlete has $3,000 in personal expenses that are not feasible for their impoverished families to provide. The disturbing part of the athletes not getting paid is the amount of revenue schools bring in because of these athletes. For instance, the average athlete at the University of Florida has $2,250 in personal expenses they cannot afford while the school brings in nearly $80,000,000 in revenue off of the two big sports. Averaging out the number, athletes and the total revenue, players could be compensated up to $265,000 and the university would still break even.

However, paying them that much is not a viable option as the universities need to make money. Yet a new reform model has been proposed that would help the student-athletes and their families until they are able to graduate. This includes raising scholarship amounts to cover all expenses, and allowing players to do commercials and endorsements to make money. This provides them with greater opportunities even while in school and shows how big-time sports can really aid young adults in living a comfortable life.

Many may argue that sports have really not had much effect and rather society just became more adept to change and more willing to change. However, this could not be further from the truth. It has been seen through history that time and time again sports and social/cultural change go hand and hand.

From the racism of Hitler and Jessie Owens proving him wrong at the 1936 Olympics to women’s equality gained through the Battle of the Sexes tennis match, sports have been going through the same turmoil that most of the world goes through at the same time, so it is only fitting they have influence and can help change both society and culture. But one thing that has always existed is poverty, and for millions of youth, sports seem to be their only way out of a rough life.

Sports have long been at the center of the world’s attention, from the Olympics and the World Cup, to the Super Bowl and World Series. And when the population is going through changes more often than not sports are right there with them with the same issues.

The film Hoop Dreams provides substantial evidence that sports can be a path out of poverty for minorities. Not only do sports keep many children out of trouble, it helps them lead happy, successful lives as adults. While the primary goal of playing professionally is only reached by two percent of high school graduates, the majority of impoverished students use sports to stay away from trouble, create better educational opportunities and eventually create better opportunities once their schooling is complete.

Arthur Agee and William Gates are prime examples of how sports can change people's lives and lead them to a place they never could have dreamed of without them.

Here are the works cited for all in-text citations and non-cited concepts. 

Works Cited

Anderson, Eric. “Masculinities and Sexualities in Sport and Physical Cultures: Three Decades of Evolving Research.” Journal of Homosexuality 58.5 (2011): 565-78.Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Campbell, Jamonn, Denise Cothron, and Ross Rogers. “Sports Fans’ Impressions of Gay Male Athletes.” Journal of Homosexuality 58.5 (2011): 597-607. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.

Carmichael, David. "Youth Sports vs. Youth Crime." Fairplay for Children. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.

 Collett, Jessica. “Using Remember the Titans to Teach Theories of Conflict Reduction.”Teaching Sociology 38.3 (2011): 258-66. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

Eagleman, Andrea M. “Stereotypes of Race and Nationality: A Qualitative Analysis of Sport Magazine Coverage of MLB Players.” Journal of Sport Management 25.2

Gerlach, Larry. “Telecommunications and Sports: THE FUTURE OF SPORTS IN AMERICAN SOCIETY.” Speech. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Gregory, Sean. “The Tweet Hereafter.” Sports Illustrated 18 May 2009: 14-15. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Hiestand, Michael. “For Gen Y, Sports Are for Socializing, Study Says.” USA Today 19 Apr. 2011, Sports sec.: 03c. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

Hoop Dreams. Dir. Steve James. Prod. Fred Marx. By Peter Gilbert. Perf. William Gates, Arthur Agee, Isiah Thomas, and Spike Lee. Feature Film Co., 1994.

Layden, Tim. “Does Anyone Remember the Titans?” Sports Illustrated 15 Oct. 2011: 72-83. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Nov. 2011.

Miller, James A., and Tom Shales. “Blood: 1978-1979.” Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. New York: Little, Brown and, 2011. 3-58. Print.

N, Angel. “How Sports Transcends Culture.” Bleacher Report. 21 July 2008. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

Nance-Nash, Sheryl Sheryl. "NCAA Rules Trap Many College Athletes in Poverty - DailyFinance." Daily Finance. 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. .

 “National Poverty Center.” National Poverty Center | University of Michigan. University of Michigan. Web. 9 Dec. 2011. .

Nixon, Howard L. “Social Network Analysis of Sport: Emphasizing Social Structure in Sport Sociology.” Sociology of Sport Journal 10.3 (1993): 315-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Not Just a Game. Dir. Jeremy Earp. By David Zirin. Media Education Foundation, 2010. DVD.

"Preventing Crime." Crime Prevention Tips. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.

Ratcliffe, Caroline, and Signe-Mary McKernan. "Childhood Poverty Persistence: Facts and Consequences." Urban.org. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.

 Remember the Titans. Dir. Boaz Yakin. Perf. Denzel Washington. Walt Disney Pictures, 2000. Film.

Roberts, Selena. “A Player Serves Notice to Homophobic Sports Culture.” The New York Times 8 Feb. 2007: D1. The New York Times. 8 Feb. 2007. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Rovell, Darren. “Packers’ Aaron Rodgers Continues To Lead NFL Jersey Sales, Tebow Falls.” CNBC Home. CNBC, 5 Oct. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

Rowe, David. “Culture, Sports and the Night-time Economy.” International Journal of Cultural Policy 14.4 (2008): 399-415. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Smart, Barry. “Not Playing Around: Global Capitalism, Modern Sport, and Consumer Culture.” Global Networks 7.2 (2007): 113-34. Academic Search Premier. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.