Game On

Youth sport is the most important institution in all of sports, because it’s where everything begins. It’s where we first fall in love with a game, picking up fitness habits and rooting interests that can last a lifetime. It’s where many of us learn early lessons about teamwork, integrity and competition. It’s where the next generation of leaders often emerges—helping shape the future of a republic that for more than 100 years has looked to organize the play of children for the sake of nation-building.

But youth sport isn't just orange slices and all-star trophies anymore. It's 14-year-olds who enter high school with a decade of football experience, 9-year-olds chasing college scholarships, 5-year-olds competing for world golf championships, and 3-year-olds in uniforms and organized games. It's a year-round "travel team" in every community … and parents who fear that not making the cut in grade school will cost their kid the chance to play in high school. In short, a landscape in which performance often matters more than participation, all the way down to biddy basketball.

Much as Fast Food Nation challenged our eating habits and Silent Spring rewired how we think of the environment, Game On will forever change the way we look at a culture besotted by the example of Tiger Woods. An award-winning reporter for ESPN, Farrey examines the lives of child athletes and the consequences of sorting the strong from the weak at ever-earlier ages: testier sidelines, high injury and burnout rates, fewer active kids, and U.S. national teams that rarely win world titles.

It’s easy to blame parents for the excesses of modern youth sports. Game On doesn’t do that. Instead, it explains why parents feel compelled to provide their children with athletic advantages, connecting their behavior to the economic, social, religious, and other influences that have shaped youth sports over the past century. Farrey also asks hard questions of the groups that organize the landscape—from the AAU to Little League to the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Game On is organized in a manner of a travelogue, a journey from city to city, each chapter featuring a new set of characters—often families with the most ambitious of athletic dreams. The structure of the book also reflects the race to the bottom in youth sports, starting with Age 1, or Chapter 1, a visit to a Los Angeles sperm bank where college jocks donate their seed for would-be parents who prize athletic traits; Chapter No. 14, which is about a Miami community torn by a sex scandal in the nation’s top-ranked football program, takes us up through the start of high school. The stories and sports focused on in each chapter are distinct, but the reader will find that parallels emerge, allowing lives to be stitched together in the manner of a quilt—an American Dream quilt, if you will.

Drawing on five years’ of research and hundreds of interviews—from Hall of Famers to sports scientists to corporate titan Jack Welch—Farrey dives into a realm populated by more than 30 million boys and girls. Along the way, he uncovers surprising truths on a range of key questions, among them: When do the very best athletes enter organized play? What’s the best approach to coaching them? And what are the influences of wealth and genetics on athletic success?

The father of three young children, Farrey has written a surprising, alarming, thoughtful, and ultimately empowering book for anyone who wants the best for the newest generation of Americans, as athletes and citizens.