How do small towns produce so many pro athletes?

September 23, 2010


I’m sure you’ve seen Friday Night Lights. Or perhaps you’ve watched Hoosiers or Varsity Blues or any of the other hordes of small-town sports movies that showcase the standard formula—a group of high school kids with nothing else to do band together to overcome long odds to succeed. It’s as if the mythos of the small town somehow breeds magic and success into the blood and bones of the young athletes

The myth-and-fact farrago of these movies—emblazoned in our minds by pop culture—might be more science and sociology than we think. Sport psychologist Jean Côté co-authored studies that use statistics to show that small towns are producing more top-tier athletes than cities—a lot more. In an article by the Wall Street Journal, writer Austin Kelley uses NFL quarterback Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders) as an example of how growing up in small-town Taylorsville, Mississippi, (pop: 1,341) can be a positive reinforcement to young athletes, a contrast to big-city sports that Côté says is “overorganized and overcoached.”

Also of note is the NFL-famous town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania (Pop: 11,734), that has churned out the likes of “Iron” Mike Ditka, Sean Gilbert, Tony Dorsett, and Ty Law. In 2007, Aliquippa added two more names to the NFL—Derrelle Revis (Aliquippa High/Pitt) and Paul Posluszny (Hopewell HS/Penn State).

The stats are there: although only 25% of our citizens come from small towns, a whopping 50% of the NFL’s ranks are born and raised in cities under a population of 50,000. The same can be said of 45% of the PGA’s golfers. Also of note are the athletes from the NHL (39%), MLB (38%), and NBA (28%). The argument seems to be that young athletes that have a chance to build their confidence—in an environment where the opposition might be somewhat relaxed—might have an advantage over big-city kids who are primed and prepped from a very young age to be a cog in the pro sports machine. Quite often the small-town athletes play several different sports; Aliquippa’s Revis and Posluzny competed in high school basketball against each other since they belonged to rival schools.

The argument, however, isn’t necessarily confined to the great American Midwest or the dusty towns of West Texas. CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a feature on “Football Island”—aka American Samoa—where a population of 65,000 has more than 30 players in the NFL, and more than 200 in Division I college football.* 60 Minutes producer Scott Pelley noted that in the last five years the six high schools on the island have produced 10 NFL linemen, and that a child born to Samoan parents is 56 times more likely to get into the NFL than any kid in America.

But how much of this is truly psychological and/or sociological? In American Samoa’s case, there is little debate that genetics plays a significant role—especially when Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu is standing over you. But Côté, co-editor of the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, cites a number of factors that lead to “little town” success, some of which were reported in the WSJ. Among the factors cited were, “The accessibility of sports role models in little towns, the cultural values placed on sport, and even the ‘big fish little pond’ effect, which can be a positive reinforcement for young athletes.”

Côté refutes the prevailing notion that children do not need to find a specialized niche early in their sporting careers. They are successful because they do not spend all of their free time learning specialized skill sets.

Pelley reported that, aside from biology, Samoans seem to try hard to overcome their socioeconomic status—their nation is extremely poor. He also reports that the lives of young men are immersed in football culture. If we follow the logic of socioeconomic status and background, we start venturing into Hoop Dreams territory—city boys spend every waking hour trying to get into schools that breathe basketball skills and fine coaching, just so they can get a shot at the pros or a college scholarship.

Wherever the data leads, there is definitely some science in the numbers of small-town athletes. But I think we like to think there’s a lot of magic, too. At least that’s what the movies tell us.

*To be fair, many of them are of Samoan descent, and reside in the mainland United States, Hawaii, and elsewhere.


Latino Athletes Turning Sporting Arenas into Political Arenas

May 14, 2010
Viva Los Suns

On Cinco de Mayo, the Phoenix Suns reached out to their Latino fans, and, for a day, become "Los Suns."

Arizona is feeling the heat. After their recent hard line policy shift on immigration, the Grand Canyon State is now facing a number of hardships—and, interestingly enough, some of the biggest political clout is coming from Latino athletes.

With the looming fear of racial profiling on the horizon, the Latino culture has been unifying and pressuring the Arizona government to repeal, amend, or suspend the current “anti-immigration” legislation. But the athletes—and just as importantly, their fans—have begun to attack a very vulnerable weak spot in today’s recession-driven landscape . . . the economy.

Phoenix’s Chase Stadium is the site of the 2011 Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game, and a large contingent has been hammering at MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to move the event to another state. Fenton, a consulting firm leading the charge, has been privy to landmark rights cases before, having challenged apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. Fenton launched a website called, offering a petition for users to sign.

Major League Baseball, which boasts a membership of at least 30% Latinos, is finding itself in a precarious position, reaching a wide swath of audiences. The Associated Press reported that Selig has elected to keep the All-Star Game in Arizona, stating, “I told the club today: ‘Be proud of what we’ve done.’ They are. We should. And that’s our answer. We control our own fate, and we’ve done very well.”

In the AP story, Selig cited sports sociologist, author, and activist Richard Lapchick’s report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport last month that gave baseball an “A” for race, and a “B” for gender hiring.

The MLB Player’s Association did take a more pronounced position after deliberating at length, and issued a statement, given by Executive Director Michael Weiner:

My statement reflects the institutional position of the Union. It was arrived at after consultation with our members and after consideration of their various views on this controversial subject.
The recent passage by Arizona of a new immigration law could have a negative impact on hundreds of Major League players who are citizens of countries other than the United States. These international players are very much a part of our national pastime and are important members of our Association. Their contributions to our sport have been invaluable, and their exploits have been witnessed, enjoyed and applauded by millions of Americans . . . The Major League Baseball Players Association opposes this law as written. We hope that the law is repealed or modified promptly.

Professional leagues and teams have been demonstrating their support for Latinos with recent crossover marketing. Later this baseball season, the ‘Cerveceros’ of Milwaukee will play the ‘Piratas’ of Pittsburgh.

In March, 10 NBA teams wore jerseys that targeted to their Latino fans. But more prescient was the decision of the Phoenix Suns to wear their “Los Suns” jerseys during a playoff game against the Spurs on Cinco de Mayo—after the Arizona legislation passed. (To be fair, San Antonio would have worn their “Los Spurs” jerseys had they been available.)

“The Suns and managing partner Robert Sarver should be applauded for their move,” said Horacio Ruiz, a contributing writer to 100 Campeones: Latino Groundbreakers Who Paved the Way in Sport, which is a title being published this summer by Fitness Information Technology. “Surely they are conscious of the Latino fan base they have and also the role that sports has in society. Anyone that argues that sports should be left alone and outside the influence of politics and social movements just doesn’t understand the history of sports and its foundations.”

Jim Litke wrote in an article that the upcoming census is likely to reveal that Latinos will constitute close to 15% of the population of the United States, with a purchasing power of one trillion dollars.

Arizona has seen this sort of pressure before, however, when the majority of state citizens voted to not officially observe the Martin Luther King, Jr., national holiday in 1990. The NFL Players’ Association helped to lead a boycott against the state, and Super Bowl XXVII, slated to be held in Arizona in 1993, was moved to Pasadena, California. Arizona soon voted again to adopt the official observation, and was awarded Super Bowl XXX in 1996.

“The immigration issue presents itself as a political and sociological issue as large as those that have come before it,” said Ruiz. “Why can’t sports now be a theater of protest and demonstration like it has in the past?”

Regardless of how one observes the current situation in Arizona, it is difficult to deny the amalgamating power of the sporting arena—one of the few places where the public at large can unify against a common enemy . . . the opposing team.

Horacio Ruiz is a contributing writer to Richard Lapchick‘s upcoming book, 100 Campeones: Latino Groundbreakers Who Paved the Way in Sport. He has also contributed to Lapchick’s previous titles, 100 Pioneers: African-Americans Who Broke Color Barriers in Sport, and 100 Trailblazers: Great Women Who Opened Doors for Future Generations.

You can also read more about how sports have transcended the color barrier in the recently published Long Run to Freedom, by John Nauright, and the upcoming Sports, Race, and Ethnicity, a collection edited by Daryl Adair.

Female Student-Athletes and Sporting Violence

March 25, 2010

Elizabeth Lambert was suspended indefinitely after her aggression on the soccer field vs BYU

Last year, Oregon’s LeGarrette Blount sucker punched Boise State’s Byron Hout at the end of a hotly contested football game after Hout mouthed off. This month, Baylor’s Brittney Griner decked Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle after a Lone Star shoving spree during a women’s basketball game. The events were remarkably similar: a college athlete overreacted with a swinging fist during a tense game. The only difference is that Griner’s actions seem to accent a growing trend of violence and aggression in women’s athletics; something that the public eye is finding both a novelty and a blight.   

A recent New York Times story highlighted some of the more recent high-profile events attributed to over-aggressive female college and high school athletes: New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert slammed her BYU opponent to the ground by the ponytail; women’s basketball rivals Georgetown and Louisville threw some pre-game punches; and a Providence, R.I., high school girls’ soccer game erupted in fights on the field and in the stands.  

Whether or not women are becoming more violent during sporting events, the real question is “why?” 

Dr. Jack Watson, chair of the Department of Sports Sciences and an associate professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University, said that in order to get a better understanding of why women athletes may be trending towards violence, we should take into account the very nature of women’s athletics today compared to a generation ago. 

“We’re putting more pressure on women’s sports,” said Watson. “It used to be about merely having a coach, but now there is a lot of competition and we’re putting more money into coaching, and coaches need to win.” 

West Virginia University professor of sport and exercise psychology and psychologist for the school’s athletic department, Dr. Ed Etzel remarked that student-athletes, regardless of sex, are influenced by role models and media outlets.

Watson echoed the sentiment: “It’s all a form of societal learning.”

In the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, the following excerpt appeared in the article “Aggression and Violence in Sport,” which was published in 2003: 

[A] recent article in Referee Magazine . . . presents the view that poor sportsmanship at the professional level has led to similar problems among high school athletes. Mike Pereira, Director of Officiating for the National Football League (of American Football; NFL) is quoted as saying, “The pros and college sports have a huge impact on the play of the game at lower levels.” 

One could argue that college sports are on a “lower level” just as much as high school sports; both collegiate and high school athletes, male and female, have access to the same media outlets that broadcasts MLB brawls and WNBA scuffles. And both male and female student-athletes seem to respond similarly, if recent events are any indication of what is to be commonplace. 

“If [students] see a particular modeling of behavior in the media by peers and others in professional sports, they begin to change what they see as acceptable behavior,” said Etzel.

As students adopt new attitudes toward what is acceptable sportsmanship behavior during competition and training, they carry those attitudes with them as they become new parents. While this is old hat for men, the territory may be new for most women.

“We’re now seeing children born to moms and dads that were post-Title IX kids,” said Watson. “We’re into the second generation of females now.” 

Because of the inroads laid by Title IX and the work of countless women, female student-athletes now have unprecedented access to sports—and increasing competition—when it comes to sporting activities, and they are working as hard as their male counterparts. Watson observed that women are spending as much time in the gym as men, but their determination extends well beyond training. “Women are just as competitive as men on the court,” he said. 

Brittney Grimes was handed a two-game suspension for her punch that broke Barncastle’s nose. LeGarrette Blount was punished by a season-ending suspension, but was reinstated late in the season. The Oregonian reported that Blount’s incident dropped his NFL stock, and he went from “probably a second round draft pick to pretty much undraftable.” 

Although Grimes’s and Blount’s punishments were drastically different, repercussions and penalties for violent and aggressive behavior vary greatly. Lambert, for example, was suspended for the season after her hair-yanking fiasco. But how should athletic organizations find common ground when punishing violence and aggression?

“I have a radical idea,” said Etzel, “Perhaps we should consider these behaviors as crimes as they would likely be seen off the court and on the street?”


Dr. Ed Etzel is the editor of Counseling and Psychological Services for College Student-Athletes and is coauthoring a chapter in a forthcoming handbook on sport and exercise psychology with Dr. Jack Watson; these books and the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology are published by Fitness Information Technology and are available at