When I was growing up, my weekends were often spent as a spectator. I watched my six-foot-two younger sister spike volleyballs in sprawling conference centers transfigured to house dozens of courts. During middle and high school volleyball off-seasons, our family traveled to other states for multiday tournaments my sister’s club team competed in.
Wearing polo shirts adorned with university logos, coaches flocked to watch my sister and her teammates. Parents anxiously whispered in the stands, hoping their daughter’s performance wooed recruiters enough to nab a full-ride college scholarship. I remember finding the scene ironic: Most came from well-off families and could comfortably afford college tuition. My sister received college athletic scholarship offers and athletic-related admissions advantages.
Cue “The Blind Side.” America relishes its rags-to-riches stories where low-income athletes make it big via Division 1 programs, pushing the narrative that college sports offer upward mobility opportunities to disadvantaged athletes. But stories like that of Michael Oher are the exception, not the norm — they mask who overwhelmingly benefits from college athletics admissions: white, suburban children.
A recent study by Harvard and Brown University economists revealed that recruited student athletes at elite colleges disproportionately come from über rich families. One in eight admitted students from the top 1 percent — families with incomes over $611,000 — was a recruited athlete, compared to one in 20 from the bottom 60 percent of the parental income distribution, according to the researchers. Athletes were four times more likely to be admitted than regular applicants with the same qualifications.
When the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in college admissions earlier this summer, it left other preferences in place, including legacy and athletic recruits, which benefit white students from the middle and upper classes. The majority of college athletes are white, according to NCAA data. While America’s collegiate marquee sports — Division 1 men’s football and basketball — are overwhelmingly played by Black athletes, the likelihood that Division 1 men’s football and basketball athletes are first-generation college students is rapidly declining, according to an analysis of NCAA data. Colleges should revise their admissions policies for athletes.
The estimated $15 billion US youth sports industry is clad with expensive private leagues. Like my sister’s, many teams require parents to shell out thousands of dollars for travel to out-of-state tournaments, camps and exhibitions, gear, coach and facility fees, weekly practices, and private lessons, costing as much as $34,000 annually.
Private leagues are, for most sports, the main forum for being noticed by college coaches — not high school games. Most student athletes competed in both high school and private club teams before college, according to an NCAA study. Notably, 93 percent of men’s basketball players played on club teams.
Athletic recruiting in America is not an equal opportunity game — it’s pay-to-play. There is gross inequity in the system that produces college-bound athletes, and it often prices out families that cannot afford it.
“If you are from a family that does not have the resources for the privatized club environment that exists entirely to aggregate talent for college scouts at tournaments and other showcase events, you are denied an opportunity,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program. “The idea that college admissions for athletes is a meritocracy is only partially true. It’s a meritocracy for those who have the ability to afford the economic barriers to entry in youth sports today.”
How did we get here? As community and school recreation sports opportunities have decreased in past decades, private clubs have increased, shifting many sports behind “paywalls,” according to Kirsten Hextrum, an Oregon State University researcher who studies college sports access.
If a family doesn’t have the means to pay for a travel league, children don’t have access to the college athletics pipeline. Children from families earning less than $25,000 annually are far less likely to play sports compared to homes earning more than $100,000 — and the disparity is growing.
Of the more than half dozen student athletes I interviewed for this column, all shared the same sentiment: Private teams were their pathway to college athletics. “Everyone that gets recruited to play college basketball plays outside of high school. That is the only way to do it,” an American Athletic Conference women’s basketball player told me.
A current Big East athletic conference baseball player, who formerly played on a high school travel team associated with RBI Baseball Academy in Massachusetts, told me the main reason he decided to play on RBI’s travel team was to play college baseball.
One RBI testimonial reads: “The RBI Baseball Academy is a must for any high school player looking to play college baseball. With a commitment to academics the serious player can use this type of showcase/clinic not only to better one’s talents, but to gain admission to the school of their choice.”
All colleges with NCAA athletics engage in recruitment or preferential admissions for athletes, according to Hextrum. Although odds are slim, advantages for college athletes are as close to gaming elite schools’ admissions system as you can get. “You cannot guarantee access to Harvard if you’re thinking about your child’s future. You can’t set aside $500,000 and say this will get me into Harvard. But athletics? If it works out, that ends up being the closest way in which you can guarantee it,” said Hextrum. “Athletics have much higher guaranteed admissions rates than any other groups, including legacies and donors.”
College athletes are hardworking and enrich campuses. I cannot imagine my Big Ten college experience without the fan community built around athletics. But Natasha Warikoo, an equity researcher at Tufts University, rightfully says that colleges should be asking themselves whether preferential college athletic admissions play too large a role and perpetuate inequality.
A former Ivy League fencer told me, “The athletic recruitment process is a system that people can game. And what we all know about systems is that if you have more money and power, you can game them more easily. That was certainly true for my sport.”
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban race-conscious admissions practices could mean a drop in representation of Black and Latino students, and admissions officials have touted the necessity to invest more in outreach and recruitment efforts to communities of color and low-income students. Colleges should also apply this philosophy to sports: Universities should tie athletic scholarships to demonstrated financial need, and coaches should prioritize recruiting athletes from public schools, in addition to private leagues. Maybe then college athletics could be more representative of America.
Alexis Sargent is a Globe Opinion intern and is studying media and political communications at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the author’s sister did not get a college athletic scholarship.
Alexis Sargent can be reached at email@example.com.