Who Needs Sports?

These kids, whose lives hang in the balance

We know all about the world’s most famous athletes. We know almost nothing about the lives of the athletes at the base of the sports pyramid — the children who won’t make headlines for anything they do on a playing surface and so easily can get pushed aside. But we should, as access to quality sport activity can shape their futures, the communities in which they live, and the health of the nation.

Few cities face as many challenges as New Orleans, where the Aspen Institute’s Project Play is helping a city-wide coalition of 15 youth sport organizations identify opportunities to collectively serve and develop more kids through sports. The coalition is led by the Laureus Foundation USA, which also asked us to collaborate on a report capturing the state of youth sports and physical activity in the city.

Below, we put faces on the statistics — intimate, honest portraits of five local children, most of them at risk, most of them with just enough resources or luck to gain access to a youth sports experience. The profiles are written by author and journalist Hugo Kugiya, and edited by the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Get to know these kids, and get to know the promise of sports when used for development.

Billy, 7

Billy, on right, likes baseball best — in the rain, all the better

Billy is a wiry kid, and not built to remain still. His neurons and synapses are always firing, usually rehearsing one sport or another, whether or not he is actually on a field.

His parents Jody and Gilbert are avid spectators and participants themselves and believe in the physical, emotional and intellectual value of living an active life. They are the type to always keep at least a soccer ball in the car so they can pull over and kick it around if the opportunity arises.

He is a portfolio manager for a major commercial bank; she is a social worker and director of the non-profit group Girls on the Run of New Orleans, which uses running as a platform to educate, empower, and inspire young girls in New Orleans.

Billy sleeps on New Orleans Saints bedding, next to a Saints rug marked with yard lines.

“I like football, I like soccer, and I love baseball,” Billy said. “I watch every sport…baseball is my favorite.”

His parents are lucky to have the resources to keep their son active, although it has not been easy. In addition to the money, work days have to be cut short or started late, rides have to be arranged, logistics managed.

Billy’s family is not poor enough to qualify for some of the programs available to more needy families, nor are they wealthy enough to join every club and let their kids play every sport. They have means, but they have to work at it.

Like most kids in the city who attend public school, Billy attends a charter school, the Bricolage Academy. Many were created after Katrina, operated out of makeshift spaces like churches and synagogues that lack playfields or playgrounds. Eventually, his school will be moved to a state-of-the-art facility, but probably not for another three to four years.

His school has no after-school sports programs, so his parents signed him up for flag football at their local Jewish Community Center, and soccer with an organized, youth sports league called the Carrollton Boosters.

For reasons of safety, Billy’s mother doesn’t want him to play tackle football, which means that sport will soon end. Luckily, Billy’s favorite sport is currently baseball.

Billy’s family is not poor enough to qualify for some of the programs available to more needy families, nor are they wealthy enough to join every club and let their kids play every sport.

Carrollton is not cheap (it and the JCC charge up to $200 per season, plus the cost of equipment), and it provides a limited number of sports: football, baseball/softball, soccer, basketball, and lacrosse.

At summer camp, Billy discovered he loved tennis and announced he wanted to learn. Without an obvious, affordable avenue for tennis, his parents let desire fall by the wayside. Well, maybe another time, Jody thought to herself.

“We are fortunate we can afford both the money and time to expose Billy and Max to different sports, because it’s a priority to us,” she said. “There are families in Billy’s school who aren’t like that. Those parents don’t know to look for those opportunities, or maybe can’t afford it, are not interested in it. Those kids are missing out.”

PROJECT PLAY FACT
It’s not just kids who are dreaming, especially in low-income areas. Parents with household incomes of less than $50,000 are significantly more likely to say they hope their child will become a pro athlete compared to parents with household incomes of $50,000 or more a year (39% to 20%). In addition, parents who did not go to college are more likely to say they hope their child will become a pro athlete (44%) than parents who graduated college (9%).
Source: NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard University School of Public Health survey, 2015

Sofia, 11

As a toddler, Sofia was slow to begin talking. Her doctor mistakenly concluded she was just a late bloomer, convincing her parents to simply wait.

As Sofia got older, she continued to struggle with speech. Her parents noticed she also had trouble reading social cues and body language, and managing relationships with other children. Sofia also sometimes had trouble controlling her body movements, and her emotional impulses. While these are problems many children have to some degree, Sofia had particular difficulty with them.

In her own words, Sofia said, “I struggle with saying certain kind of words, and reading different kinds of words.” With a grin, she also admitted, “I’m very, very hyper. Step one foot in our house, and you will want to leave.”

In social settings, Sofia has an easy smile, is friendly, affectionate, a little restless. Her parents have turned to speech therapy, even music and art therapy, in the hopes of helping her learn the skills other kids tended to learn more easily and naturally. In 2013, when Sofia was in third grade, her parents put her in an after-school program called Girls on the Run New Orleans, in which girls aged 8 to 11 are coached to run in a non-competitive setting.

“I’ve seen incredible growth in her ability to read people and regulate her emotions and responses,” her mother Darcie said. “She’s always been a very strong-willed child with a ton of passion and energy. She needs a lot of guidance and an outlet for that energy.”

Sofia worked with familiar faces — her teachers were coaches. The program came to her, at school, so her working parents didn’t have to worry about transportation or other logistic hurdles. Most important of all, the program focused on participation and personal growth, more than competition, at least the form where success is measured against the efforts of others.

“I can see a huge difference in Sofia on running days. She is far less emotional, more grounded, calmer, able to focus more.” -Darcie, Sofia’s mother

Sofia’s brief experience with soccer left her parents discouraged. She was only four years old, enrolled in a community league for tots. Her parents felt coaches and other parents pushed the girls to be too aggressive for the sake of winning, so Sofia and her parents bailed after two months. Sofia hasn’t played soccer since.

Sofia’s family — she has a younger brother — is able to make ends meet, mostly. Her father works as a law enforcement officer, her mother for the state’s health department. Her working class family has decent insurance coverage for some of Sofia’s therapy but just their co-payments can add up to $300-$400 a month.

Girls on the Run charges fees of $220 per 10-week session, but families are required to pay only what they can. The sliding scale allowed Sofia to participate in both the fall and spring sessions, something her parents couldn’t afford in full.

“It’s as much about the inclusion as the physical activity,” Darcie said. “I can see a huge difference in Sofia on running days. She is far less emotional, more grounded, calmer, able to focus more.”

The girls on the team, usually at least seven, run at their own pace for about 45 minutes, usually tight laps so no one loses the group, in a local dog park across the street from her school in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. The culmination of a running season is a five-kilometer run that family members can also participate in.

After running, Sofia says she feels “hungry, tired, mostly tired, and happy because I’ve gotten some of the energy out, and I used that energy for a good reason.”

Her physical confidence has grown enough that she’d consider trying a more competitive sport, basketball.

“I’m not a good dribbler,” she said, “but I’m a good passer.”

She’s ready for team sports again, and ready to be a good teammate.

PROJECT PLAY FACT
“Winning” means far less to children than to adults. In a survey of children playing sports at both the recreational and travel team level, 9 of 10 kids said “fun” is the main reason they participate. When asked to define fun, they offered up 81 reasons — and ranked “winning” at No. 48. Young girls gave it the lowest ratings.
Source: George Washington University, 2014

Tyriq, 11

Tyriq is a sixth-grader at Schaumburg Elementary, a charter school on the east end of New Orleans whose halls and cafeteria are festooned with banners of colleges from around the country, to help the students keep their “eyes on the prize,” as the faculty puts it.

The prize for him, though, centers on basketball.

“I know I have to get good grades,” he said, “so I can play in college. I want to be in the NBA.”

Tyriq is a lanky kid of inconspicuous height, who hasn’t played outside of his neighborhood, but of an age where all dreams are still possible — even if the ceiling of possibility sits low above his head.

His father, who lives in Atlanta, has talked to him about his improbable goal, encouraged him to think of school as a means to better life, not necessarily an elevator to the sports penthouse. Still, basketball is what excites Tyriq. So it’s something to work with, an animating idea that offers hope.

He is an aloof kid, who doesn’t easily smile. He lives far off the tourist maps in the outer city, east of the Industrial Canal, a 5-mile waterway that connects the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. The canal passes through the 9th Ward, the community famously destroyed by the flooding of Hurricane Katrina when the canal’s levees failed.

The neighborhoods of New Orleans East have no official names. Almost all of the students at Schaumburg, most of them African-American, qualify for free or reduced lunch. About one fifth of them receive some form of special-education instruction. All of them — from pre-K to 8th grade — wear uniforms to school.

Tyriq was a kid who struggled with his emotions. “I was an angry person,” he said. “I’d get mad about stuff that wasn’t even important.”

Motivated by his desire to play college basketball and keep his grades up, Tyriq studied over the summer instead of playing video games.

He lives with his mother and three younger siblings. His grandmother lives nearby and also acts as a parental figure. His mother is a waitress and works six days a week.

Basketball, he said, helped him. He picked up the game three years ago at a neighborhood hoop, taking tips from a slightly older kid about defense, dribbling and shooting. Then, he played one season of “park ball,” what the residents of the area call the parent-coached recreational leagues based in neighborhood playgrounds like Joe Brown Memorial Park. He wanted to play park-ball football too, but his mother couldn’t afford the cost of equipment, she said.

Motivated by his desire to play college basketball and keep his grades up, Tyriq studied over the summer instead of playing video games. He also fastened down his behavior at school, going from discipline problems and frequent visits to the school office during his fourth-grade year, to a model student his fifth-grade year. He was one of 40 students taken on a field trip to Memphis at the end of the school year as a reward for their performance at school.

He is hoping to make the school team, a luxury afforded only to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls. The school only has enough uniforms and equipment to accommodate 15 boys and 15 girls. With the girls, that’s usually not a problem — typically no more than that try out for the team. The challenge there is keeping them in uniform. By the end of the season, most have quit because they hadn’t submitted the required physical exams. This year, the school has arranged for a doctor to come to Schaumburg to give exams for $10.

With boys like Tyriq, it’s more a matter of accommodating interests. Typically about 30 boys try out, so half will be told they’re not good enough to play. Supply will not meet demand. And lives will unfold, shaped by access to a game.

PROJECT PLAY FACT:
People who live closer to parks report better mental health. Time spent there has been shown to boost concentration and focus, and kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experience milder symptoms when they play outside in a natural setting.
Source: Trust for Public Land

Tianna, 12

Hurricane Katrina’s flood separated Tianna and her father Bryan Domingue when she was a toddler. He relocated to Atlanta, Tianna and her mother to Dallas.

Tianna had come into her father’s life unexpectedly. He and her mother did not stay together, and they did not have in place a formal custody agreement for their daughter when the hurricane hit.

The separation was supposed to be temporary. A year passed. Domingue’s efforts to see Tianna were thwarted, he said, prompting him to argue in court for sole custody. In Oct., 2006, he won.

He agreed to let Tianna’s mother keep her each summer. At the end of the summer of 2007, she didn’t return Tianna, forcing Domingue to hire a lawyer, he said. A few days before Christmas, 2007, he drove to Dallas to pick her up.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Domingue said. “She saw me and said, ‘Daddy, I was wondering when you were going to come get me. I kept looking out the window but I didn’t know where you were.’ ”

Tianna has seen very little of her mother since.

He guided her the way he knew, nudging her into sports, softball first, at age 7, in a parks league, then basketball at age 8 through the Biddy Basketball program, an organized league for grade-school age players. She started track at age 9, with AAU. In fifth grade, she took up volleyball for her school team. For the last two years, she has played volleyball, basketball and softball for Hynes Charter School.

He didn’t know it years ago, but Domingue had given Tianna an identity and them a course for their relationship to follow.

“There are always lots of sports in the house,” Tianna said. “Even when I’m not playing, we’re watching sports. My dad and I, we go to high school football games, LSU games too.”

The games are a bond, a place and a time to connect. To Tianna, their bond means their “twin instinct,” she said, their tendency to think and then say the same thing at the same time.

Domingue works as a mechanic at an Audi dealership and drives for Uber part time. He works odd hours and weekends. It’s a constant challenge getting her to practices and games. His income is inconsistent. If Tianna’s shoes are too small, she might not tell him until they hurt her feet. He taught her to be self-sufficient, so she could cook for herself or wash her own clothes if he wasn’t around.

“I was scared to death,” Domingue said of fatherhood. “I just knew I loved her and I wanted to be in her life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love going to her games, watching her practice. I wanted to see her grow up.”

He didn’t know it years ago, but Domingue had given Tianna an identity and them a course for their relationship to follow.

Keeping her focused is his priority. As a single parent, he can’t always be with her at every hour of the day and needs some help. Boredom is the biggest hazard to his daughter as he saw it, as it is to a lot of kids in the city. “I don’t care how tired I am, how broke, she is going to stay busy,” he said.

Tianna and her dad have caught good breaks along the way, finding dedicated coaches who took an interest in her. “Good coaching is hard to find, especially for girls,” Dominque said. It certainly helped draw their attention that Tianna flashed athletic ability, precocious dexterity and speed. Other, more ordinary girls probably wouldn’t have gotten the same attention.

In that way, Tiana and Domingue say they know they’re lucky.

PROJECT PLAY FACT
In low socio-economic schools, those that serve the highest percentage of kids on free or reduced-price lunches, only 24.6% of eighth graders play sports. At middle SES schools, it’s 30.9%. For high SES schools, it’s 36.1%.
Source: Bridging the Gap, RWJF, 2012

Carlo, 16

Carlo was a freshman when the worst thing he could think of happened to a friend. She was also a freshman, at another high school.

They had met in middle school. They went to movies, to the mall, to school dances, always in groups. Their relationship never turned romantic, but it was intimate, based mostly on long, phone conversations.

“I could tell her things I couldn’t tell my parents or any of my other friends,” Carlo said. “We could easily talk on the phone for four hours. I’ve never felt that way about anyone before.”

Several months later, the two were supposed to go together to her winter dance, but she had acted up in class and, as punishment, was barred from attending. That week, she and Carlo talked on the phone to make alternate plans.

To Carlo, she seemed happy. But two days before the dance, in January, 2013, she hung herself in her bedroom.

“I thought it was the end of my world,” he said. “I even contemplated taking my own life.”

He later learned she had been the target of online bullying. His first reaction was anger, that he hadn’t been there for her the way she was always there for him. Anger, that she hadn’t confided in him about her pain. He cried himself to sleep every night for weeks. His grades dropped. He pushed people away, falling into a depression.

Almost nothing felt good to him, which is when he started to focus on the one thing that did.

“When you hit a golf ball, you have to clear your mind,” Carlo said, “and when you hit it well, it feels good.”

He was seven when his mother brought him to a practice held by The First Tee of Greater New Orleans, the local chapter of a national organization that endeavors to introduce golf and life skills to kids whose circumstances don’t allow them to simply fall into the sport. More than two-thirds of children who participate in The First Tee nationwide are racial minorities. Most First Tee kids come from families who can’t afford greens fees and clubs.

His Filipino heritage makes him even more of an anomaly on a golf course. He admitted to not always feeling like he fits in there, the exception being when he participates in The First Tee.

Carlo lives in a city where having a dark complexion is common, but his is hard to pin down, at least for his peers. He has thick, wavy, dark hair, and handsome, broad features, with a build more like a linebacker’s than a golfer’s. His parents were both born in the Philippines.

He is also the only non-white golfer on his team at the all-boys, Jesuit High School, the subject of some joking among teammates. Although intended to be good-natured, the ribbing doesn’t always feel good, he said.

His Filipino heritage makes him even more of an anomaly on a golf course. He admitted to not always feeling like he fits in there, the exception being when he participates in The First Tee.

“It’s still hard for me to get close to people,” said Carlo.

Last spring, Carlo was honored as the organization’s “outstanding” participant, a distinction that came with a $20,000 college scholarship and the chance to craft a year-long service project. During his acceptance speech at a banquet in Dallas, through tears, he thought of Margo and announced that bullying was to be the focus of his project.

PROJECT PLAY FACT
Golf isn’t the only sport where access to resources matters. Sport participation rates among youth living in households with the lowest incomes ($25,000 or less) are about half that of youth from wealthier homes ($100,000+) — 16% vs. 30%.
Source: Sports & Fitness Industry Association data provided to Aspen Institute, 2013

Sharel, 18

Sharel (first left yellow shirt) and friends run a race together.

A good day for Sharel meant she kept her brothers distracted, taking them outside to play or keeping a video game in their hands so they would remain blissfully unaware that their mother was upset or sick.

Sharel knew the truth. Their mother was addicted to heroin. Sharel was in middle school when she first noticed the sickness. Her father wasn’t around to help. He had been incarcerated for most of Sharel’s childhood. She and her brothers had a well-meaning stepfather who ran an auto shop. They had a comfortable if not close relationship with him, and he kept the bills paid.

So, she figured, it fell on her to look after her brothers, who were five and 10 years younger. She helped them with their homework, made them dinner, got them into bed, and made sure they did not suffer from want of a mother’s attention.

“It wasn’t hard to do,” she said. “I was not thinking about it. I just did it.”

She did not have much time for her own teenage life, and at times she wondered if she might have to drop out of school.

During her freshman year, when her mother’s addiction got particularly bad, Sharel was sent to live briefly with her father while her brothers lived with a foster family. The same year, a teacher at her high school started an after-school running club, part of a then new citywide program called Youth Run NOLA.

“It was a lot easier and a lot more fun to stay after school, than deal with what was going on at home. It was the calmest thing in my life, to get away from everything else and just run and be with friends.”

Sharel was no athlete. She had never participated in sports before. She was out of shape. Her eating habits were terrible.

“I was heavy, and I was lazy,” Sharel said. “I really wasn’t healthy. I didn’t care.”

She decided to do something about it and joined the running club.

“When I first started, it was actually very hard,” Sharel said. “I would complain a lot.”

She stuck with it though, because the alternative was far less appealing.

“It was a lot easier and a lot more fun to stay after school,” she said, “than deal with what was going on at home. It was the calmest thing in my life, to get away from everything else and just run and be with friends.”

She stuck with it for four years, as her mom continued to struggle with addiction and her father with staying on the right side of the law.

Once too out of shape to run a mile, Sharel eventually ran four half-marathons.

“Now, if I’m mad or upset or even if I’m happy, I go for a run, just because,” she said. “Now, I also think about what I eat, and I don’t want to be lazy. Running just helps me with everything.”

This year, Sharel got into the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, about a two-hour drive from New Orleans. She received financial aid so she could afford to go. Her brothers are older and better able to look after themselves. Their mother recently completed a rehabilitation program, still trying to find her way, just as her daughter found hers.

PROJECT PLAY FACT
Adolescents who play sports are eight times as likely to be active into adulthood as adolescents who do not sports.
Source: Penn State University, 2004

Read the PDF of the Laureus report, “Orleans Parish State of Youth Sports and Physical Activity,” with its statistics drawn from survey results of youth-serving New Orleans organizations, here. The microsite for the Aspen Institute Project Play report that has informed the coalition’s work, “Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game,” with its eight strategies of the eight sectors that touch the lives of children, can be found here.

Information on Project Play and upcoming activities is available here and its work can be followed on Twitter @AspenInstSports.