More Focus Needed on Academics than on Athletics

The April 27, 2006 issue of The Columbus Dispatch had an article about inner-city children learning to play golf. The instructors deserve credit for their work. But they were incorrect in telling the children: “If you dream big enough, you can be just like Tiger Woods.”

Too many young Americans already have unrealistic expectations of becoming rich and famous in professional sports. As a result, they neglect the academic studies that are their true avenues to success in life.

The odds of becoming a professional athlete are sobering. That is shown in a 1988 report by sociologists Wilbert M. Leonard II and Jonathan E. Reyman.

The report is discussed in Andrew W. Miracle Jr. and C. Roger Rees’s 1994 book Lessons of the Locker Room. They say the report shows that for all sports, only 4 of every 100,000 white males, 2 of every 100,000 black males, and 3 of every million Hispanic males achieve professional status.

The report further states that in football, just 16 of every million white males, 21 of every million black males, and 4 of every ten million Hispanics attain the pros. For baseball, the report sets the odds per million as 12 for whites, 3 for blacks, and 2 for Hispanics.

Also according to the report, of every ten million white high school basketball players, only 28 make the pros. The number for blacks is 65 per ten million.

Miracle and Rees additionally say that for those men who achieve the professional ranks in one of the “big four” sports of football, baseball, basketball, or hockey, the average “career” lasts about five years. Afterwards, the former athletes may want or have to work at jobs outside of sports for 25 or more years.

Taking baseball, basketball, and football into consideration, sports sociologist Jay Coakley similarly wrote in 1994 that the careers of most professional athletes last no more than three to five years.

A reason for so many short careers is that the chances of being cut after the first season, or sustaining a career-shortening injury, are not low. For those athletes, professional sports rarely bring fame or fortune.

No matter how the calculations are done, they all indicate that for males the odds of becoming a professional athlete – with or without a long and financially rewarding career – are extremely remote. And the chances for females are less.

The odds of becoming one of the best professional golfers in the world have to be even smaller. Winning the lottery seems more likely.

Rather than focusing on an almost surely unrealistic goal of becoming another Tiger Woods or other professional star athlete, young people need to keep their primary aim on more attainable and important goals in business, government, and the professions. This focus is necessary not only for their own well-being but for the country’s.

For example, workers trained in engineering and other sciences are essential for American businesses to compete in the global marketplace. They are also needed for government to have the technological ability to provide military defense, homeland security, and other vital services. The jobs pay well in both the private and public sectors.

Business Week reported in December 2005, however, that most surveys of U.S. corporate executives show that this country “is already facing a shortage of engineers in everything from software and chemicals to life sciences, and these shortfalls will worsen in coming years.” The magazine also cited a November 2005 survey of 4,000 engineers, 56% of whom said their companies have a shortage of engineers.

Part of the reason for the shortage is that the yearly number of college degrees conferred in engineering in the U.S. declined by 11% between 1989 and 2000. And in 2009, the 84,636 degrees awarded in engineering and engineering-related technologies was less than the 85,002 awarded in 1989, despite an increase in the number of students attending college.

Because of the importance of scientific education, Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in a 1997 letter to McGill University: “I don’t think that any job in the entire world – and I include Popes, Presidents and Generals – could possibly be more important than teaching science to secondary school students.” He certainly viewed such teaching as far more important than coaching sports.

For some reason, though, not nearly enough American young people are inspired to pursue careers in scientific fields. And too many of them seem interested in careers in athletics or entertainment.

Other countries apparently recognize the greater importance of increasing the number of technologically skilled and productive workers than the number of athletes and entertainers. In a 2005 study, Harvard economist Richard Freeman stated: “At the college level, statistics show a waning interest among U.S. students in science-related careers; in 2001, only 17 percent of all bachelor degrees in the United States were in natural science and engineering, compared to a world average of 27 percent and a Chinese average of 52 percent.”

For two other major competitors in the global economy – Japan and in South Korea – the percentage of degrees awarded in science, engineering, technology, and math are 64% and 41%, respectively.

Freeman also said that by 2010, the number of engineering doctorates awarded in China is expected to surpass the number awarded in the U.S. That’s just one of the reasons why some economists expect China to be the world’s leading economic power within the next 30 years.

CNN anchor Lou Dobbs wrote in 2006: “It’s obvious the Chinese are overtaking the United States in manufacturing.” And he added “we now have a trade deficit with China in information and communication technologies, threatening U.S. leadership.”

The U.S. will be left far behind other countries if its young people concentrate too much on sports and unrealistic athletic dreams.

Their willingness to train, sacrifice, and prepare for the future are commendable. But in doing so, their main focus needs to be on developing the occupational skills needed for success in a highly competitive global marketplace.

As President John F. Kennedy said: “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”