The Politics in School Sports Teams: Favoritism on the Field

Most people who know me would agree that I am not very fond of politics, and that’s especially true when it comes to the sports that our kids play. While coaches and athletic directors might tell you that they don’t play “favorites,” believe in nepotism, or run their program by the pay-to-play philosophy, I’ve personally found that to simply not be true.  Whether the coaches are pressured by their schools or other organizations to win, or simply motivated by their own egos, our children can get caught in the middle of this win-at-any-cost mentality.

In a perfect world, team sports would be designed to nurture self-esteem in our children, instead of teaching them about the disappointing and negative impact of favoritism. But alas, when it comes to the way most sports teams are manned (oops, did I just make a subtle gender reference?) there is nothing perfect about it at all.

I’ve personally never played in organized team sports, but both of my daughters have—so let me tell you, if anyone says that that most school or club sports are not imbued with politics, then it’s probably because it’s their children who are the lucky favored few.  Unfortunately, I’ve had to stand back and watch both of my own very talented players (isn’t that what every parent says?) get yanked around, used, and spit out by a variety of coaches who could have cared less about the psychological damage that they inflicted upon my daughters, with their voracious need to win championships or tournaments.

And this isn’t just the bitter diatribe of a parent whose children were mediocre players not wanting to accept that reality. No, I have not only seen the horror with my own children, but also with countless other talented players, who were passed over by the coaches because of their teammate’s connections, and not talent or skill.

It’s so ironic when you call out a coach on the subject of favoritism and watch them act offended, only to watch players with skills no better than your own— but whose parents are the “doers” and “givers”—  get moved up and continually glorified. I have personally never once witnessed a parent who wasn’t actively involved in a sports program have their child pulled down from a team or left to sit on the bench most of the season.  And don’t get me wrong— I think it’s great to have the time to volunteer, but not everyone has the monetary means, and that should never be done for reward… hence the word “volunteer.”

When it comes to politics, club teams are terrible, but the real problem of misuse of power occurs in school sports.  For my oldest daughter, it began in middle school as she was continually passed over for less talented players, whose parents were either housewives with ample time to volunteer, or happened to be wealthy and connected in the community.  Loving the sport so much, she was still determined to play in high school. During her freshman year, she worked her behind off and gained some decent playing time (of course I don’t think that it hurt that I became the queen of volunteers at the concession stand).

Things looked good the following season. My daughter felt confident that she had earned her spot as a forward, and was confident that she would have some solid playing time. And she probably would have, had nepotism not gotten in the way.  It just so happened that this particular season, my daughter’s position was now being sought after by a freshman whose father was a v-e-r-y successful businessman who became head coach in order to jockey his daughter into the full-time forward position (Does it get any more political than that??).

All season, I had to sit in the bleachers (or resentfully serve hot dogs) and watch my daughter, a sophomore, and ten-times the player than this freshman, sit on the bench and lose what should rightfully have been her spot because of politics. It was frustrating. At the end-of-the-season banquet, when the coach neglected to even publicly remember my daughter’s name and smugly announced that his daughter would be moved up to varsity, well, enough was enough and I got up and walked out in total disgust. My daughter quit soccer after that night and it has taken her a long time to get over the feelings of disappointment and unworthiness from that negative experience. 

These days, I’m once again facing these too-familiar politics with my youngest daughter, who from the moment she stepped on the soccer field, had a raw talent that would take your breath away.  In this case, I am not just a mother who simply wants to believe her daughter is  a good athlete—enough strangers have come up to me to tell me this fact.  That’s what makes it all the more difficult to watch her get swallowed up in the political BS. I know that she’s a gifted athlete on the field, but she is competing with teammates whose parents donate time and/or money, and that is a playing field where she cannot win.

Sadly, like her sister, she’s thinking about walking away from something that she has put so much work into and that brings her so much joy. It breaks my heart, but these moments remind us as parents that sometimes, we have no choice but to just let go.  I can explain to her ad nauseam that this is just the way the world works, and that it sucks, but at the end of the day, all she feels is that she isn’t good enough.

So parents— while I believe that sports are important, unless you are willing to play the game, you might want to consider giving your little one piano lessons instead.

Have you ever had to deal with politics in your child’s school sport? Share your stories with us.

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Tags : confessions   school   sports   

James Coleman
This sounds like Mamaroneck High School Mamaroneck, NY. This is exactly what has been happening to my daughter.
Zach Scott Education Acting Classes For Kids
This is an old article, but we are ending this school year 2020 with my daughter as a Senior. Right before the virus hit and with lots of tears my daughter chose to walk away from softball after playing since age 8. And it was the politics solely on the part of the coach. A kid doesn’t have a chance if you have the “wrong parents”. Others are lucky that their Dad has been friends with the coach for 16 years. Varsity position Freshman year - easy-peasy. Winning Varsity Football coaches daughter- no problem Varsity Freshman year. But a player who had a better batting average Freshman year than the player who’s Dad owns the local Baseball training center... oh yes, she played Varsity Freshman year. We are happy it’s over but sad to say goodbye to softball the way she had to.
Mike Balash
Happens all the time. I remember in hs, not being the best, but definitely better than a few others that made teams due to connections. If you weren’t a standout it was definitely “who you knew”. Total BS. My advice to kids and parents in similar situations today is to encourage your kid to keep playing (even if it’s not on the school team) whether in another league or at the park with friends. If you love it and it brings you joy, play it. Don’t let politics and poor judgement by a couple people in charge ruin something you love!
When I was in school, our starting qb went down. Replaced by a chubby kid, 5'5 at best. His daddy was a major player in the school district administration. Needless to say, this kid, who ran a 5.3 40, had a 45mph fastball, etc has since been inducted into our school's hall of fame (based on athletic letters earned). This is my primary driving force into wanting to coach, so this blatant nonsense ever occurs again.
Amy Smith
My son wasn't chosen for the school soccer team. The coach mainly selected kids who played at his soccer club. Although my son was told by many of his friends that he should have made the team. The coach showed favoritism to kids on his club. We talked to the athletic director about it but he didn't offer us as parents nothing to help in this matter. Any suggestions how to proceed?