My New Year’s Resolution: Close the Play Equity Gap

By Renata Simril

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Updated on Jan. 12, 2018)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message of freedom, equality, justice and love was both American and universal. In his note “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, he reflected on the freedom fighter’s disappointment in an America defying its ideals: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” This sentiment is ever more relevant today as it was in 1963. However, Dr. King looked to an entire world in peace and a universal brotherhood: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So as we spend time reflecting on Dr. King’s message and reinforcing our commitment to the work still to be done, let’s all remember, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

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2017 has been a particularly tough year. The news is filled with stories of fractured politics, sexual assaults, civil rights woes, immigration controversies, Russian intrigue, mass shootings, floods, fires, droughts — at first glance it might be enough to say just “good riddance” to this particularly challenging twelve-month span.

But from challenge comes opportunity. And during this season of faith, family, and reflection, there truly is good reason to be optimistic about the year ahead.

Why do I say that? Because instead of simply accepting 2017’s problems as fait accompli, the past twelve months have seen a great number of people stand up and stand together, for decency, for democracy, and for doing what is right.

I mean: A movement was named Time Magazine’s person of the year! An athlete in his prime who didn’t take a snap was named GQ’s citizen of the year. Women began the year marching en masse at rallies, and ended the year ousting and keeping out some dubious politicians from elected office, in addition to outing predatory behavior by powerful leaders in multiple sectors throughout society.

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.

When people are inspired to work together for the common good, then good things happen. That’s why I am choosing to publicly share my New Year’s Resolution: In 2018, I resolve to do everything I can to close the Play Equity gap. And, I further resolve to do everything I can to help others do the same.

Play Equity means fairness. Play Equity means opportunity.

Play Equity means that how much exercise kids get must not be determined by their income. Play Equity means that the dreams of our youth must not be determined by their zip codes.

Hiding in plain sight, there is a national crisis in play. I find that many people who don’t have young kids or don’t live in underserved communities aren’t aware that the opportunity to play or join a team isn’t a natural extension of childhood anymore, as so many of us remember it being when we grew up. A chasm has formed between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to sports and the basic need to run or jump, swim or compete…. or simply move.

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I am the President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation. We are a youth development organization that transforms lives and communities through support of youth sports and structured play programs. Some believe sports are just a game. Others fresh air, recreation and fitness. But that’s only part of the story. The lessons of sport and play are the lessons of life: “developing the body, mind, and spirit; the pursuit of excellence, the nurturing of character, and the call to personal integrity and responsibility…” (Jack Swarbrick, Director of Athletics, University of Notre Dame).

We are proud that we’ve used sport to build a bridge to a brighter future for those who need it most. Young kids like Caylin Moore, who through football overcame the negative odds facing African American males to earn a spot as a 2017 Rhodes Scholar, or SaraJoy Salib, who found her strength in the water to combat bullying and become the first in her family to attend college, and making it onto the Occidental College diving team in the process.

Caylin Moore (left) at the 2017 LA84 Foundation Summit

Unfortunately, all of our work and impact has not yet closed the Play Equity gap. And, the growing need far outweighs the funding we have to give. In neighborhoods with high poverty rates, opportunities to play oftentimes don’t exist. Barriers include the elimination or reduction of enrichment programs such as P.E. and sports programs, safe passage to safe playgrounds, lack of trained and well-paid coaches and the rising costs of athletics and intramural programs, which have contributed to a ‘pay-to-play’ culture that steeply disadvantages kids living in low-income communities.

READ MORE: US Soccer: Pay-to-Play or Play Equity?

There are 15 million kids in America living in poverty, and according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, nationally 69% of all girls who do not play sports live in households with incomes of $35,000 or less. The number is 53% for boys.

Here in Los Angeles, kids from households under $50,000 are five times more likely to be inactive than kids from $100,000 households.

Seventy-seven percent of kids in the public Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch programs — a key indicator of poverty — and 48% of kids in LAUSD are obese or overweight.

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Play is a basic human right and without access to sport and structured play, kids miss out on critical benefits including physical health, social-emotional growth, and academic development. We need a movement to bring to light the inequities that prevent a lot of our kids from experiencing the transformative power of sport and structured play. Welcome, then, to the #PlayForAll Movement! I’ve made my New Year’s Resolution.

But I certainly can’t close the Play Equity gap alone.

And even the organization I lead, as focused as we are on this problem, can’t take this on alone. So, I’m inviting all of you reading this to make this a shared New Year’s resolution. Let’s work together to close the Play Equity gap and maximize our collective impact.

Now that you are all in on the idea of the #PlayForAll Movement, you might ask: What can I do?

You could volunteer your time or donate money to organizations actively working to close the Play Equity gap. For a list of the organizations that the LA84 Foundation funds, visit here. You can also check out a list of some of our recently featured grantees here.

LA84 grantees like LAUSD Beyond The Bell are closing the Play Equity gap.

You can share your own #PlayForAll stories with @LA84Foundation on Twitter and Instagram, LA84 Foundation on Facebook, or email us info@la84.org. We can help amplify your important examples.

You can also contact the LA84 Foundation to learn more about what you can do in our own community. For example, you can work to insure that: Girls have the same athletic opportunities as boys; kids with intellectual or physical disabilities have full access to sport; and school districts fund after-school sports programs as well as offer P.E. classes more than one or two days per week.

I believe in the power of sport. In the main courtyard of the LA84 campus, we have a symbolic Olympic flame that burns hopeful every day. As a legacy of the 1984 Summer Games, we have turned that Olympic flame into an eternal symbol of hope for millions of kids to become their best selves through sport.

The Olympic flame burns eternal as a symbol of hope for millions of kids.

As we look to the Olympic Games returning to Los Angeles in 2028, let’s use the next 10 years as our opportunity to build upon this legacy and to ensure that the #PlayforAll movement is making a difference where it counts the most.

Season’s greetings and Happy New Year to all of you and your families. See you in 2018!

Renata Simril is President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation. Connect with her on Twitter @RenataAngeleno.