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Why Fantasy Sports are Hurting Youth Sports

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Fantasy sports. We can’t get away from them. More people are playing fantasy sports today than ever before. Close to 52 million of them, or 20% of the population in fact.  And more young kids are becoming as obsessed with building their fantasy teams as they are about video and mobile games.  The fascination is palpable and supported by a huge industry. But what is ‘fantasy’ doing to us, our kids and to the youth sports culture? There are positives for sure, but we should look carefully at what we’re getting hooked on.

Stats, Fun and Failure

Fantasy sports provide a way for people, among all generations, to be in touch with each other.  Folks discuss, email, and text their weekly picks – making for easy and frequent social engagement. Surely this isn’t bad. Success in fantasy sports is a function of luck and significant research – it requires reading, analysis, math skills, and decision-making. The chances of winning each week are slim, forcing many young people to deal with failure, recovery, and regrouping for the next week. So, we have social benefits, some learning, and dealing with failure. OK, those are some decent positives.

Keeping More Kids Hooked on Sports

It is also amazing how many young people have become knowledgeable about so many players, providing an appreciation of, and engagement in, sports and athletics that happen in real life.  While the teams are virtual, the players are actual people. Fantasy sports are also fun, fast and easy to do.  Almost anyone can play at some level regardless of age or ability.

Legalized Gambling

My concerns are best captured in fantasy football – a multi-billion-dollar industry that undermines what is great about sports. First, fantasy football is gambling.  The fact that fantasy football is legal is remarkable – its legality must be the result of persuasive money-supported lobbyists who found ways to manipulate lawmakers behind the scenes. Gambling is illegal for a reason. It’s addictive and unhealthy. There are many more losers than winners. And while gambling is bad for all sports, professional football is its biggest casualty.

Focus on the Individual Over Teams

Through the fantasy lens, the focus on individual stats has supplanted the drive to cheer for one’s favorite team. Fans don’t seem to care about their home teams as much, unless it leads to more points for their weekly fantasy picks. The Red Zone, the NFL Network “game day” channel, highlights scoring plays in highly condensed action-packed reels. It’s entertaining and seductive like watching football on crack. Do we ever feel restored after watching the Red Zone? It just leaves you wanting more.

Sports radio stations and television programs are jumping on board. They have to, right? It’s a business movement that can’t be ignored. To ignore the importance of fantasy football would be business foolish even if morally wise. Media coverage mirrors fantasy football – where we continue to celebrate the stats of the individual – the great catch, the highest number of fantasy points to make someone more money through gambling. And sadly, this theme of individualism trickles down to us parents and our kids playing youth sports.

Not too long ago, I attended a youth sport contest that was an exciting game decided in the last seconds. After the game, I was perplexed as to why the parents of the winning team seemed depressed. I asked a coach I knew at the game, and he said that many parents are often not happy with a win unless their own child plays and has a good game. This rise in focus of individual performance, often driven by the pursuit of college admission, is a concerning shift.

Missing the Full Opportunity of Sports

The success of the team no longer seems to matter. While many of us parents can understand a myopic focus on our child’s performance, wouldn’t we all agree that we should at least show pleasure in our child’s team success, even if our child didn’t play or play well? Isn’t this what we are supposed to do in good communities, trying to build healthy character for the next generation? The problem is that many youth sport travel teams and club programs are all about cultivating and showcasing individual talent. Team play is not emphasized when college scouts are watching. Are we just becoming a youth sport factory?

Granted, it is a leap to connect parents’ sideline behavior directly to fantasy football blood. Fantasy play is not the source of all evils, and some might argue that the benefits mentioned above are worth the downsides. This said, the gambling elements of fantasy sports, our drive toward outcomes and the celebration of the individual go against grain of what makes sport participation great: Cheering for our team whether they win or lose and never losing sight of the importance of unselfish team play, which cannot be sacrificed for the sake of individual glory.

There is great value to the process of building teams, working and growing together over time. If we don’t recognize this, we risk regressing to the behavior of our gladiator cheering ancestors at the Roman Coliseum, just seeking entertainment from the kill.

 

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Dr. Richard Ginsburg
Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg is a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant. He is co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital PACES Institute of Sport Psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ginsburg also serves as staff psychologist in the Newton Wellesley Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department and is the director of Behavioral Health for the Boston Red Sox. Dr. Ginsburg offers a broad range of clinical services to children, adolescents and adults and conducts youth and professional sport research. He is author of the book, Whose Game Is It, Anyway, A guide to helping your child get the most from sports, organized by age and stage and has served as a sport psychology consultant for a variety of professional and college-level sports teams, including lacrosse, soccer, water polo and ice hockey at Harvard University. He is a member of the US Lacrosse Safety and Science Committee and provides talks and consultations nationally to youth, high school, and collegiate athletic programs. Dr. Ginsburg played lacrosse and soccer at Kenyon College, where he won all-conference and all-Midwest honors. He is also a former independent school teacher and coach. He lives with his wife, Teri, and their two children in Newton, Massachusetts.