All youth sports are not created equal.
Youth sports’ transformation into a multi-billion dollar business has changed the game. A rapidly growing number of American parents are spending thousands annually on travel teams and private club sports, as reported in TIME Magazine’s August cover story and an eye-opening segment of HBO’s Real Sports. Entire towns are catering to youth sports tourism, building fields and courts to attract tournaments and the spending that ensues from these sporting families.
The amount of time and funds that go into youth sports is impressive, but it also results in the issue we now face. While talent is universal, opportunity is not. There is a youth sports crisis in this country, and the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots is growing at a frightening rate.
In American households earning $100,000 or more, 41 percent of children have participated in team sports according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. In households earning $25,000 or less, the participation rate is less than half — 19 percent.
Sports and physical activity have and will continue to transform the lives of our youth. They play an invaluable role in a child’s physical, emotional, social and academic development. But as many urban schools reduce physical education classes to one to two hours a week and defund sporting programs, limited park space and a lack of youth sports opportunities plague communities that need them the most.
African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles County are about twice as likely to reside in areas with subpar park space per capita, per data from a 2016 Los Angeles County Department of Public Health study. These park-needy areas, which also see higher rates of economic hardship, see an increased rate of childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease. And this disturbing trend is not limited to Southern California.
While talent is universal, opportunity is not.
Millions of young athletes, who cannot afford to join a traveling team or access high-end facilities with state-of-the-art equipment, are being left behind. Not only do many kids in these communities lack the resources needed to enjoy team sports, they often lack the resources to prosper in general, typically barely scraping by. They are worried, first and foremost, about their own survival. Every day for them is a contest to stay alive, and they do not have access to the necessary counseling, nor have they developed the needed coping mechanisms to help them deal with the daily trauma of their mere existence.
Denying children like this the outlet and supportive environment of team athletics, physical activity, and general play deprives them of a necessary means to relieve the pent-up stress induced by their environment.
Sound mental and physical health are vital to one’s prosperity. By removing a proven remedy for many kids suffering out there, a remedy provided by sports, we are failing the next generation and our futures. This equity gap is heading in the wrong direction, and it is collectively on all of us to refocus our impact toward providing Play For All access to sport.
What is a major way to make sports accessible to all kids? By bringing back physical education and structured play to where they have been slowly leaving: schools.
Take for example the Beyond The Bell program, in which the Los Angeles Unified School District offers free afterschool sports program at all 94 middle schools. In a school district where 77 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, registration fees are not required to play soccer. Parents are not asked to drive hundreds of miles to basketball practice. Students can try rugby without the rigors of joining a club team. It simply gives kids, many of whom would be unable to otherwise, a chance to play.
The impact has been significant. Regular participants see improvement in math pass rates and aptitude, higher GPAs when they move on to high school, and the program actually sees more students taking part in sports as they get older. Program participants are active for 45 minutes per day, five days a week. Nearly 43 percent of kids play more than one sport, sport sampling rather than specializing in one sport from an early age, a worrisome trend that studies show increases the risk of injury and burnout.
Beyond The Bell focuses on engaging kids through sport, empowering them to enjoy the benefits of teamwork and competition, and connecting them with well-trained coaches and mentors invested in our next generation’s success on, and more importantly, off the field.
Just as importantly, the program focuses on having fun. It lets kids be kids.
Many times we observe a booming industry and remark at the sales figures and the glitz and glamour of its meteoric rise. But when you look deeper at the current model of the children’s sports world, you have to ask what value it is really imparting on our society for all that money spent.
What reward are we really reaping when our kids’ health and well-being become a commodity? And what are we losing of ourselves in that process? We must continue to ask ourselves these questions and wonder not just what is going on in these communities that are underprivileged… but what am I actually doing about it?
We do not have to accept the troubling direction youth sports are going and the win-at-all-costs mentality that comes with it. The mentorship, friendships and life lessons of sports are benefits that all children should have the opportunity to enjoy, no matter where you come from, how much your family makes, or what you look like.
All youth sports are not created equal, but we can face this issue head-on with collaboration and a commitment to making sure the dreams of our youth are not determined by their zip codes.