Commentary: Travel sports and money, money, money | Columnists

Wednesday was a very unusual day in America.

Not one major sporting event took place that day.

There were no Major League Baseball games; no NFL, NHL, or NBA games; no major thoroughbred horse races; no major league soccer games; and no PGA golf tournament.

In a nation obsessed with sports, that has to go down as a red-letter day. After all, there are baseball games on Easter, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day; NFL games on Thanksgiving; NBA games on Christmas; and major college football bowl games on New Year’s Day.

In America, no day is sacred when it comes to sports, so the chances of there not being some big event on any given day are really slim. In fact, in a nation where sports betting has become all the rage, you probably could have gotten extremely long odds that there would not be some big event going on.

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But there wasn’t. Wednesday, July 19, may go down in history.

This column is not so much about sports as it is about the American way of life. Our society seems to take all things to the extreme, and sports is a perfect example.

Somebody interviewed Deion Sanders (pro baseball and football) last week about why there were so few black players in Major League Baseball. He said the same thing that I have said in several columns over the years—travel teams are pricing poor kids out of the game.

Not just poor African American kids, but poor kids of every race. Travel team baseball is expensive, and many families simply cannot afford the price.

More than a decade ago, I sat in the stands at a high school volleyball game and discussed travel team sports with a mother who said she had spent more than $10,000 the previous year to keep her daughter in travel team volleyball.

Volleyball! There is no professional volleyball league where her daughter might one day get a multi-million-dollar contract. Why pay $10,000 to keep a child on a travel volleyball team?

One reason was to make sure her daughter made it on her high school team. Kids on travel teams play at a much higher level than they do in little league sports, so when they try out for high school teams they have a significant advantage.

But the problem sometimes runs much deeper than that. Some years ago there were two men in a nearby county who coached both the local high school basketball team and the predominate girls travel basketball team. One guy was the head coach at the high school and the other was the travel team head coach. The non-head coach was the assistant.

The deal was that if you didn’t play on the travel team you didn’t stand much of a chance of playing on the high school team. This rule was never expressed in so many words, but it was implied, and all the kids—and parents—knew it.

That, of course, wasn’t fair to kids who could not afford to play travel ball, but as long as the high school team kept winning, any complaints were ignored.

In sports, as with other aspects of American life, it all comes down to money. Travel ball is to sports what prep schools are to education. The kids that attend both usually have the best chance to reach and excel at the next level. But both opportunities cost money that many families don’t have. So, those who can afford it have the best chance to succeed.

Travel teams are not unique to America. They, not state-supported little leagues, are the rule in many European countries, especially when it comes to soccer. Again, the kids whose parents have money have a definite advantage.

Travel baseball is expensive. Uniforms, aluminum bats (each player has his own), hotel bills—they all add up. Some teams even take winter trips to Florida or Arizona to play. The average working man or woman with several children can’t afford the price.

Who makes up a great percentage of players in Major League Baseball these days? Many are from Latin American areas like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. There baseball is still a game where poor kids hone their skills on vacant lots. MLB scouts sign prospects as young as 16 in some of these areas.

In America, vacant lot baseball is a thing of the past, and if you want to excel, your best shot is by playing on a travel team, which costs money.

This column is not meant to cut down travel teams or the American way of life. It is just to emphasize the old adage that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Donnie Johnston:

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