Should we pay Little Leaguers?
Did you watch the Little League World Series last month? It’s possible you missed it in the wake of other news stories, like Hurricane Irene. But this year’s winners (a team from Huntingdon Beach, California) were also overshadowed by coverage of their own game, as the state of competitive youth baseball and whether or not these “unpaid adolescents” were being exploited became the media’s focus.
Sportswriter Dan Wetzel made his case for compensating Little Leaguers in “Pay the Little League World Series Players.” Wetzel writes: “Not every Little Leaguer, just the ones who play on television, where their innocence is packaged into a commodity. And, no, they shouldn’t make millions or even hundreds of thousands. They should get something, maybe several hundred per television appearance. If it made people more comfortable that the money went to a college savings fund or maybe into a trust that becomes available when they’re 18 or 21, so be it.”
Any self-respecting economic sociologist, or sociologist of childhood, will immediately think of Viviana Zelizer’s classic Pricing the Priceless Child after reading this quote. And you will also know that childhood innocence and compensation do not always mix so well.
I’ve written about how we should think of children’s participation in afterschool activities as a form of children’s work. Afterschool activities can qualify as “work” both because of prizes won and because of the acquisition of cultural capital that will have a pay-off in the longer run. I’ve also written about child performers, particularly children on reality television shows, and how they are compensated. Child performers have always occupied a complicated space in child labor debates, partly because their “work” is often constructed as being “educational.” But I’m not aware of any serious scholarship (sociological, economic, or legal) on compensation of child athletes.
In my opinion compensating child athletes may sound logical on some level, but it is a complicated issue that poses a few problems that are likely insurmountable in today’s commodified world. The most obvious practical complication has to do with NCAA regulations. If we compensate kids they almost certainly lose their NCAA eligibility. Of course many of these kids won’t go on to play NCAA baseball, but they may play another NCAA sport. Compensating them without proper protections in place jeopardizes those future opportunities. (Paying NCAA athletes is another issue that has been batted around for some time, though it also has been talked about a lot more in the past few months).
Second, and even more complicated, is that if we compensate kids in a way consistent with them being classified as workers or performers (and limiting compensation to those who appear on television makes it more likely they would be classified as performers) that would also limit the number of hours they could “work” and the conditions under which they could labor. This could impact practice times, length of games, and other parts of the sporting experience.
However, I do believe that kids should be compensated and rewarded for their hard work—particularly when it helps adults benefit financially. One model to look at would be the National Spelling Bee (which, incidentally, is now not only broadcast on ESPN, but also live on ABC in the final rounds). Finalists receive prizes, like an encyclopedia, along with scholarships, bonds, and cash awards. Other in-kind gifts like computers and trips are also possible (for example the National Geography Bee winner wins a trip to the Galapagos Islands). Perhaps elite child athletes could receive similar types of awards—like specialized training—that could protect them from NCAA violations.
In the meantime they have to settle for hometown parades and a DVD of their television appearances. What do you think is fair?