"A growing body of research is showing the social and economic benefits of participation in youth sports to be surprisingly large and overwhelmingly positive. Other things being equal, if a kid plays sports, he will earn more money, stay in school longer, and be more engaged in civic life.
Athletics also seems to give a bigger edge to students than other activities, such as band, student government, or theater. In another paper, Ewing estimates that, all else equal, athletes earn roughly 6 percent more than non-athletes, translating into around $1,000 per year extra wages.
Athletes are also more active citizens, a 2006 study found. Economists Mark Hugo Lopez and Kimberlee Moore of the University of Maryland examined the effect of participation in sports on civic engagement. After controlling for factors such as age, educational attainment, and income, they found that athletes are 15 percent more likely to be registered to vote, 14 percent more likely to watch the news, and 8 percent more likely to feel comfortable speaking in public (and, for public speaking, the effect on females is twice as large).
Why would participation in sports be associated with many benefits? Distinguished sports historian Allen Guttmann provides a clue. He notes that ancient sports were highly religious affairs, and competition was organized in order to please the gods. Modern sports, however, have an entirely different character. Guttmann comments, “Once the gods have vanished from Mount Olympus or from Dante’s paradise, we can no longer run to appease them or to save our souls, but we can set a new record. It is a uniquely modern form of immortality.”
Americans learn on the ball field or in the gym that effort and success are connected. Convinced that effort matters, we extend more effort, and celebrate and protect the fruits of effort.
Why have Americans been unwilling to build a European welfare state? Because they believe that income differences are largely attributable to effort difference. Why do they believe that effort matters? Maybe it’s because they play Little League.