June 22, 2016
Youth sports have become ubiquitous in this country, with vast legions of kids signing up to play AYSO, Little League, Pop Warner, and the like, and with vast legions of parents who drive them to practices, games and tournaments. According to the most recent statistics attributed to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, more than 26 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 participate in youth sports.
But academic research on the topic of youth sports has lagged well behind this high rate of participation, according to Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California. As he writes in the introduction to his latest book, “Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds” (Rutgers University Press), co-edited with Ph.D. candidate in sociology at USC Michela Musto, “scholars of sport have largely ignored kids as active participants — as athletes and fans — and have mostly failed to study the ways in which sport, both for good and for ill, is so often an important and meaningful part of the larger landscape of childhood.”
The book is a hard-hitting salvo that begins to reverse this trend. The 11 essays in the book examine the landscape of youth sports from several perspectives, including inside the kids’ worlds, and analyze such disparate topics as obesity, concussions, and transgender youth. In documenting the paradox of massive youth sport participation and the relative silence among sports scholars about youth, Messner and Musto argue that “a deep and critical research engagement with kids and sport not only will yield insights that are relevant to people’s everyday concerns, but also can contribute to central scholarly questions about embodiments, violence and health, social inequality and mobility in schools, neighborhoods, and families, and consumption and audience reception of mass media as well as engagements with new media.”
Messner is the author of several books, including most recently “It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports” (University of California Press) and “King of the Wild Suburb: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons and Guns” (Plain View Press). “Child’s Play” is the latest volume in the Critical Issues in Sport and Sociology series published by Rutgers University Press. Messner is the co-editor of the series, along with University of Minnesota sociology professor Douglas Hartmann.
SportsLetter recently spoke to Messner by phone.