Social Class and Sports

coverBy: Taylor Hall

Since the beginning, sports have served as a major premise in identity development. Sports teach essential values, such as leadership, overcoming adversity, and teamwork. Nothing has the ability to bring a society together quite like sports can. It is a passion shared between almost every culture. A passion derived from the possibility of miracles, thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. While sports may bring us all together, there is still a divide for many based upon social class within sports.

In 1776, America was founded on the belief “that all men are created equal”. Thomas Jefferson penned these words conveying that all people are born with equal rights; equal rights to freedom, education, and opportunity. American society has traveled a long way since 1776 trying to live up to this, yet equal opportunity still doesn’t exist for a large part of the population. Opportunity is hindered for many by social class, race, and/or gender. America has made great strides in the direction of gender and race equality over the last 50 years, but social equality is still left as the elephant in the room. As a society, we tend to downplay the notion of social class because it conflicts with our idea of an equalitarian society and is full of complexities.

In America, we like to think that sports transcends social class, but that is all too naive. Research has shown social class to have a direct relationship to sports involvement. Social class largely defines the types sports individuals choose participate in, their level of involvement, and affects their chances of success in the sport. Often times, sports are a reflection of social class. Despite the ubiquitous role class plays in sports, it is full of complexities and a difficult concept to explore.

Social class is a social stratification, in which members within a society are classified on a hierarchy based on a variety of dimensions. Although there is some variance between cultures, these dimensions include power, wealth, social status, educational level, occupational prestige, and social standing. Social class is indicative to the variation values, beliefs, and practices within a single society, which is exemplified through ethnic communities. Individuals from the lower classes have fundamentally different perspectives of the world than the individuals of the upper classes. Our social class prompts the diverging of opportunities and their trajectories, upon which our class either hinders or excels us. Typically in America, the hierarchy is established based on the dimensions of occupational prestige, education, income, and wealth, which are then used to divide social class into four main classes: the upper class; upper-middle class; middle class; and lower class.


Upper Class:

The upper class makes up the top 4% of American households, in which the members control over 35% of the nation’s wealth. In addition to wealth, members of this class have the highest abundance of leisure time. The upper class is composed of individuals of immense wealth, such as the Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffets of the world. With plenty of disposable income, members of this class essentially control much of the financial world and seek to maintain their position in society. However defined, the upper class possesses much of the nation’s wealth, power, and influence.

Historically, people of wealth have used sports both for entertainment and as means of demonstrating their wealth. Participation has always been more popular among, and accessible to, members of the upper class due to their abundance of leisure time and wealth. The abundance of economic capital allows for the members ability to participate in more expensive sports and at higher levels.  However, members of the upper class tend to avoid participating in prole sports; the sports that stress physical contact, toughness, asceticism, and hard manual labor, which are often associated with the lower class. Instead, the pastimes associated with the upper class are more expensive to pursue. These pastimes include individual sports and sports that are played at private clubs not open to the public such as: tennis, golf, polo, equestrian, sailing, and skiing. Most of which are consistent with the preferences of the upper class, either because they exemplify the virtues that the class hold dear or because they are pursued as ends in themselves rather than for instrumental purposes.

The upper class often use sports as means of building social capital and networks, with many business deals being consummated after a round of golf or a match of tennis. . Members of the upper class often have the means of time and money needed to succeed to the next level, but lack in the strong motivation need to succeed. Instead, sports tend to be seen as a diversion, something done for fun.


Upper-Middle Class:

The upper-middle class is composed of white-collar professionals such as physicians, attorneys, business leaders, and managers. The upper-middle class amounts to 4.4% of all households, earning between $150,000 and $200,000 annually. With considerable amounts of discretionary income, members of this class enjoy enriching their social experiences through joining private clubs, such as country clubs. While most do not possess the economic resources to exist without their earned income, they do still tend to have great amount of influence among others. The value of education among members of the upper-middle class is of great significance. Their success is often patron to their education, as result leave most striving for advanced degrees. Members of the upper-middle class also find great value in establishing a network of contacts to serve them throughout life.

Members of the upper-middle class share many similarities with of the upper class when in it comes to sports participation. Both classes have abundant time and wealth to invest in sports. Members of both like to partake in private individual sports that are often too expensive for any of the other classes. Essentially, the upper-middle class serves as an extension of the upper class. Within the upper-middle class, Olympic sports, such as gymnastics, figure skating, swimming, riflery, and archery are the typical sports of interest. In addition, team sports are seen with significance within the upper-middle class, particularly ice hockey and lacrosse. Both of which involve club teams rather than school teams and costs considerably more than any of the other team sports. Through the expenses involved, ice hockey and lacrosse are almost exclusively associated with the upper-middle class, often times not even offered in areas of lower class.


Middle Class:

The middle class is the largest economic group and social class in America, including 46% of all households, with incomes ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 annually. Lacking discretionary income, members must carefully choose their expenses for daily living and leisure spending. The middle class is composed of skilled laborers, teachers, nurses, and like; most of which have degrees, but usually from less prestigious colleges. With broad ranges of occupations, incomes, and levels of education, leave America’s middle class is hard to define

Team sports dominate this class, since they are cheaper, can accommodate more players, and provide a social environment as well. Popular examples include: basketball, football, soccer, baseball, softball, and volleyball. From an early age, kids are likely to start of playing in community rec leagues; often times with their parents serving as volunteer coaches in order to stay involved. Typically from there the kids who emerge as skilled athletes either go on to play for private club teams or interscholastic teams. Private club teams are often reserved for the top-tier athletes and often require a substantial financial commitment from the family. At an elite level, these private club teams can cost from an average of a few thousand dollars per year to more than $20,000 per year in some sports; making it not an option for some of the families in the lower end of the middle class. Whereas, interscholastic teams are typically subsidized by schools and taxpayers, and the athletes can enhance their performance with at a modest expense to their family.

Sports participation is consistent with the middle classes status and values. Values typical of middle class sports, such as football and baseball, lie somewhere between the emphasis on toughness and the hard labor of prole sports and the emphasis on aesthetic performance of upper class sports. In general, sport involvement of the middle class often reflects values such as teamwork, determination, and perseverance – the characteristics needed to sustain a middle class lifestyle.


Lower Class:

In 2015, a family of four whose annual income is below $24,250 is considered to be living below the poverty line. The lower class is just that, the bottom 14.5% of Americans of whose income barely meets the minimum wage standards set by the government. Many of the members of the lower class lack high school degrees and are unemployed or only are employed part time. The working members of the lower class are often unskilled laborers, such as: janitors, house cleaners, and shoe shiners. Struggling to get by, members tend to rent apartments rather than owning their own home, lack medical insurance, and often have inadequate diets.

Members of the lower class typically choose sports characterized by violence and uncertainty based on physical strength and daring; partaking in prole sports such as boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting. These sports are often available at low cost and in urban areas and are accessible to all. These sports serve as a legitimate way of establishing self-respect and a sense of masculinity – traits necessary for survival in a modest background.

In addition, the lower class enjoys many of the same sports as the middle class, such as basketball, football, and soccer. What distinguishes the lower class from the middle class is how they choose to play their sports. With families having little to no financial resources, children seldom have the opportunity to participate in organized sports. Instead, members of the lower class are more likely to participate in unorganized play with neighbors; playing on tattered fields and beaten courts using whatever resources they have available. With dreams of escaping the lower class to become professional athletes, they don’t let their situation ruin their goals


As mentioned, social class is indicative to all our life opportunities and lifestyle choices, which includes the realm of sports involvement. The higher class partakes in much more lavish and expensive sports, whereas the lower class partakes in prole sports; both of which serve as reflections of class values. Members of the higher classes often are involved in team sports with more available resources and better facilities, aiding in their ability to progress to the next level. Members of the lower classes often do not have those resources, hindering their ability to progress and move to the next level. Title IV and desegregation have made equal playing fields based on the foundations of race and gender, but social class leaves the higher class playing on a pristine AstroTurf fields while the lower class are stuck playing on tattered fields. The inequality of social class in sports leaves much of the talent of lower class athletes going unnoticed and untapped, which leaves the world of sports falling short of its potential.

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