There is a prevalent story in American society that participation in team sports can keep impoverished and disadvantaged children and adolescents away from gangs and violence and out of trouble. We hear this refrain all the time from community organizers, educational institutions and professional athletes. “Sports kept me off the streets,” NFL quarterback Michael Vick said in a 2001 Sporting News interview. “It kept me from getting into what was going on, the bad stuff. Lots of guys I knew have had bad problems.”  “Programs like this are definitely what kept me off of the streets and kept me out of trouble,” NBA forward Matt Barnes said of Los Angeles’ Late Night Hoops program.  Of course, the percentage of American youth from economically depressed areas who eventually become professional athletes is minuscule. In 2012, 8.5 million boys attended high school in America.  535,289 boys played high school basketball during the 2011-2012 school year. According to NCAA statistics, 1 in 43 boys who play high school basketball will receive a college scholarship in that sport.  The thirty NBA teams are allowed to begin each season with 12 players on their roster. In other words, those 8.5 million high school boys have at best a 0.004% chance to make an NBA roster. In fact, the odds are even smaller given the increasing number of foreign-born athletes in the NBA. Athletics does not represent a concrete career path to the vast, vast majority of those who participate in sports.
Still, proponents of youth athletics insist that mere participation in team sports can help reduce a teen’s chances of becoming involved in violence and crime. In this blog, I have argued for a complementary relationship between physical fitness and social morals. But some recent acts of violence associated with recreational basketball games challenge both those claims. Several communities nationwide have begun to worry that pick-up basketball games may actually exacerbate violence in impoverished areas. In August 2013, two teenagers were charged with misdemeanor battery after a fight broke out at Wolfe Wildlife Refuge in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn. Neighborhood residents blame the incident on escalated tension from a basketball game at the park’s two-hoop court. Some have even demanded the town remove the park’s hoops altogether. According to a Chicago Tribune article, several locals have suggested the courts are often populated by adolescents from impoverished Chicago neighborhoods and nearby suburbs.
“It’s not, from my perspective, a family atmosphere,” resident Mike Coffey told the newspaper.
Julie Miller witnessed a fight at the park and called the police. In another incident, Miller claimed a teen aimed his fingers at her like a gun and mimed shooting at her as she passed.
In September 2013, thirteen people, including a three-year-old child, were shot on a basketball court in the Chicago Back of the Yards neighborhood. One month later, shots fired during a basketball game in Chicago’s Jeffery Manor seriously wounded three teenagers.
Around Chicagoland, basketball hoops were removed to reduce fighting and swearing in Evergreen Park, curb noise in Palos Hills and limit violence in Hoffman Estates, Hanover Park and a handful of Chicago neighborhoods. In 2010, Lansing, Michigan tore down the basketball hoops at one of its parks after a resident was assaulted when he asking a man on the court to watch his language. Since 2012, hoops have been removed from parks in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Indiana following incidences of violence.
George Mitchell, president of the Illinois NAACP, views the movement against basketball as just another example of racism. “The reason for removing all these basketball courts is to keep the black kids out,” he said. “Outsiders. Noisemakers. Troublemakers. These are all code words for African-American people…It’s another stab at the African-American male.” 
While racial undercurrents certainly account for some of the backlash, no one can deny the violent incidents that have occurred at public basketball courts. Basketball and other competitive sports have long been seen as an outlet for aggression, but in light of these outbreaks, do such sports instead allow, or even encourage, aggression? Last month, I wrote about the benefits frequent yoga practice can have for prison inmates. Unlike basketball, I haven’t yet read of fights or shootings erupting at yoga studios.
In contrast with sports, there is no interpersonal competition in yoga. Practitioners strive to attain the poses to the best of their abilities, to improve their skills and to find peace with their own strengths and weaknesses. Yet this same mentality is also essential to competitive athletes. Traits like focus, discipline and resilience remain the building blocks for achievement in both types of physical activities. Because there is no opponent in yoga, no contest to be won, it may seem easier to achieve this mindset. In competitive sports, an opponent can stand as a distraction from the focus required to earn sustained success. Those who enter a competitive sport concerned solely with winning are inevitably destined to see those desires frustrated at some point. With nothing to fall back on, I suspect losing can serve as a microcosm of other failures or hardships throughout an individual’s life. If a competitor approaches a game with the single goal of proving her superiority over another, there is no reason to expect she will abandon this pursuit once the game ends. In contrast, a competitor who enters a sport with aims such as measuring his own progress, improving his skills or enjoying a pleasant diversion seems less likely to resort to violence, because his self-worth does not hinge on his superiority over his opponent. Basketball and other competitive sports can serve as a link to social morals, but this relationship may require having a yogic mindset. Success in any physical activity depends on self-improvement, not the single-minded desire for superiority over another, and this mindset is available to basketball players and yogis alike.
- Attner, Paul. “He listens—and he hears (Michael Vick, football player).” The Sporting News. 9 Apr. 2001. Online. Highbeam Business. 16 Mar. 2014. http://business.highbeam.com/62653/article-1G1-74800705/he-listensand-he-hears.
- Freckman, Aubrey. “Clippers Tip Off Late Night Hoops.” Clippers.com. 22 Mar. 2014. Online. 27 Mar. 2014. http://www.nba.com/clippers/news/clippers-tip-late-night-hoops.
- “Table 1. Enrollment Status of the Population 3 Years Old and Over, by Sex, Age, Race, Hispanic Origin, Foreign Born, and Foreign-Born Parentage: October 2012.” United States Census Bureau. 3 Sept. 2013. Online. 16 Mar. 2014. http://www.census.gov/hhes/school/data/cps/2012/tables.html.
- NCAA, National Federation of State High School Associations in Keilman, John. “Women make college gains with low-profile sports.” Chicago Tribune. 16 Mar. 2014. Online. 16 Mar. 2014. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-athletic-scholarship-odds-met-20140315,0,649731.story.
- Lourgos, Angie Leventis. “Some towns having bad hoop dreams.” Chicago Tribune. 6 Oct. 2013. Online. 10 Mar. 2014. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-10-06/news/ct-met-banning-basketball-20131006_1_basketball-hoops-midnight-basketball-wolfe-wildlife-refuge.