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Sports in the US: Year-round madness

From the bracketology of March Madness to ESPN Everything, sports has become one of the most pervasive forces in American culture. Is it a great unifying force or a sign of misplaced priorities?

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Nowhere is our cultural zeal for sports better reflected than in youth athletics. The "stage moms" of old are now sideline moms and coaches, shepherding little Timmy or Sue to practice every day. More than 60 million kids play youth sports, up from 52 million in 2000 and 46 million in 1997.

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But these ballooning statistics raise the question: Are Timmy and Sue being pushed too hard to fill a void in their parents' lives or is playing beneficial to them?

Steve Barr of Little League International, says his and other youth sports groups are there for the children, not the parents. Every child plays in every game, regardless of skill or parental demands. "We have to make sure it doesn't get to the point where it's not a game anymore...," he says.

To do that, experts say, it's important that kids actually participate in sports instead of just viewing them on TV or a computer screen. "I think there's no substitute for participation, no substitute for feeling included and getting an identity," says Dan Lebowitz, head of the Center for Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "Sport at youth levels, middle school levels, high school levels is a space for healthy development, for conflict resolution, for healthy competitive spirit, for cooperation, for all those things that it should be."

Still, the positive experience that kids get from playing sports can be muffled by an overzealous parent. "There are certain individuals, like the parent of an adolescent or a youth athlete, who can get so overinvolved that it can take the fun out of the game for the child...," says Tom Newmark, president of the International Society of Sports Psychiatrists. "Youth sports should be fun."

Sports deities: How much worship?

Whether you bow at the altar of Boston's Fenway Park or think Pesky's Pole is something that props up power lines, one thing is certain: Sports are here to stay.

Since the era of the Roman gladiators, fans have lined up to see athletes perform. Today, whether it's David Ortiz ripping a pitch into the gap, Tyson Gay running 100 meters in less than 10 seconds, or Serena Williams sizzling an ace past her opponent, people crave seeing their athletic idols perform seemingly superhuman feats.

Zimbalist says that sports are "a manifestation of the ability of humans to transcend or come close to transcending the human limitations and boundaries of human excellence and importance." "Just like the Greeks had demigods who performed magical acts and had powers and were able to transcend their mortality, athletes do that," he says.

Johnson calls sports "the ultimate reality experience." Fans are voyeuristic, living and dying with teams' successes or failures, taking players' performances personally. "They're wearing a uniform with the name of your hometown or where you come from, so you have a connection to that," he says.

Well, maybe. Some sports aficionados caution that players switch teams so often today that we don't – or can't – develop real loyalties. "I mean, how many teams did Curt Shilling pitch for before he wound up pitching in Fenway Park?" asks Mr. Littlefield, the radio host. "In a way, a friend of mine says, we root for the laundry – whoever happens to be employed and wearing a Red Sox jersey, we root for them."