Gambling On DNA - How Far Are Parents Willing To Go?

Can you imagine holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a local bar during happy hour? Or how about taking someone struggling with a diet to an all-you-can-eat buffet?

You’re right, it wouldn’t happen because the temptation would just be too great.

Yet, when it comes to temptation, what a Colorado-based company is doing goes far beyond those scenarios. Ever since opening its doors for business, it has been preying on the obsessions of moms and dads who bring their kids to various facilities to play sports.

The company is luring parents with the sales pitch that a simple DNA swab--performed on children from infancy to 8-years-old--will inform them what sport is best for their child.

The process--which parents shell out $149 for--involves swabbing the inside of a child’s cheek along the gums to collect DNA. It’s sent to a laboratory for analysis of ACTN3, one gene among more than 20,000 in the human body.

Supposedly, the test reveals whether a child is better suited to participate in an endurance sport like running, or a more speed- and power-oriented sport like football, or a combination of the two.

Hitting The Genetic Lottery

I learned of this test several years ago when ESPN reporter Tom Farrey went to Australia--where this testing was first unveiled--to have the DNA of his infant son analyzed. He did it for an article he wrote for ESPN Magazine on the great lengths parents will go to in order to produce a talented athlete.

I cringed then because I knew it was only a matter of time before this test reached the United States. Considering the sports-crazed culture we live in today, it’s a fairly safe bet that parents will be lining up to have their diaper-wearing sons and daughters tested to see if they should be signed up for soccer or baseball--once they’re old enough to walk.

We all know the lure of college scholarships, high-school stardom and even dominating the local 8-and-under Little League program drives many parents to push their children in sports.

What gets overlooked as parents cross their fingers and say their prayers for hitting that genetic lottery is that no one can predict athletic greatness at infancy, or push a child to elite levels if it’s not part of his or her mental makeup.

Sure, many elite athletes are born with special gifts, but there are other components that factor into the equation, such as competitiveness, discipline and commitment. These are all traits that may show up over time as children grow and develop--but these traits won’t appear in a laboratory test tube years before the child puts on that first colorful uniform.

Today’s parents must understand that all kids won’t turn out to be great athletes. In fact, many won’t be athletes at all. Kids will still survive in this world and be contributing members to society.

Matching Skills And Interests

As the father of seven children who all played sports growing up, I never would have turned to this type of testing even if it had been available. Why? Because organized athletics doesn’t exist for us to run tests on our kids, and then push them into a sport we have no clue whether they have any interest in or not.

That’s ludicrous thinking.

Whatever happened to simply watching kids play in the backyard or with their friends, then seeing what puts a smile on their face? If they enjoy kicking a ball around, we may start them off with soccer, or if they love swinging a bat, perhaps we get them going in T-ball.

And when that season concludes, we encourage them to try something else.

Experts universally agree that the more sports children are exposed to--regardless if some test says they’re genetically better off in something else--the more well-rounded they’ll be, the more skills they’ll learn, and the more likely they’ll be to lead healthy and active lives.

As for that $149 test, if parents really want to spend that kind of money on a 1-year-old who has no clue what sports are, I have a better suggestion: How about using that money to start a college fund?

Chances are their child won’t become a superstar athlete, but I bet they’ll turn out just fine, with a college education, and make Mom and Dad proud.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, which is available on He can be reached via e-mail at