The Unlevel Playing Field of High School Sports

I grew up thinking that even if some people were born to great privilege and others were born into much more challenging circumstances, there was one place where the contests were fair: sports. After all, everyone plays by the same rules, right?

Apparently not. Every year, the Boston Globe compiles the won/loss record of all the high schools in Eastern Mass across all varsity sports, and they rank them from top to bottom. And guess what? The richest schools win the most games — see the chart below:

Eric's scatterplot(Regional tech schools or charter schools are not included because they pull students from many towns.)

You can easily see that the schools from the richest towns (high on chart) in general tend to win the most games (points to the right on the chart). The correlation is not absolute of course. But there shouldn’t be any correlation at all. After all, the very expression “level playing field” comes from sports.

But it really isn’t level at all.  Out of the top 20 towns by median household income, 17 had overall winning records and 10 won over 60% of their games. Out of the bottom 20 towns by mhi, none had  winning records and 10 won fewer than 40% of their games.

And it is really even more extreme than this — the rich towns also field more teams (Wellesley has a downhill ski team!) So not only do they win a higher percentage of their games, they just win many more games. The top 10 schools BY INCOME won an average of 184 games last year. The bottom 10 schools by income won an average of 74 games. And just as a lot of money helps win a lot of games, some money helps win some games: the middle 10 schools by income won 122 games.

In fact, with only one exception, every decile that a town moves up the income ladder increases the number of wins! Really amazing correlation:

Eric's graph

The x axis shows the decile of town income: lowest income on the left. The y axis shows the number of games won. The correlation is beyond question.

Why does this happen? There’s probably a bucketful of reasons. One of the most obvious is that almost all Massachusetts towns now charge fees to play sports. Families without $300-600 can’t pay for kids to participate. So poorer towns can’t necessarily field a time with their best athletes.

I guess next time I see Newton South’s baseball team hammering Revere, I’m going to remember who was born on third base.


Eric Segal is a lifelong activist and sports fan who has never been able to figure out whether to read the front page or the sports section first.