Recreation

Youth sports can be a costly endeavor

Justis column: Are high-level programs only for the elite?

Youth sports can be an expensive endeavor, from travel to camps to joining clubs. Do they exclude lower income families? (The Gazette)
Youth sports can be an expensive endeavor, from travel to camps to joining clubs. Do they exclude lower income families? (The Gazette)

As I prepare for another weekend away from home, traveling across the state’s border to watch my grandson play in another basketball tournament, I contemplate the cost.

In time, as well as in gas, hotel and food.

I don’t have to go. I can opt out. But I enjoy watching my grandson play. My daughter’s family has decided to allow their son this opportunity because he loves to play. They love the lessons he is learning through sport, the friendships they all are making.

These tournaments are huge in numbers of participants. But I can’t stop thinking about all the kids who aren’t participating because their families can’t afford the monetary output it takes to play.

There is a lot lost when only “rich” kids play.

The Aspen Institute Project Play 2020 report recently published notes “the number of kids playing sports keeps decreasing.” The new data released by the institute’s Sports & Society Program shows only 36.9 percent of children ages 6 through 12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2016, down from 38.6 in 2015 and 44.5 in 2008.

The trends published annually include:

— Children from homes in the lowest income bracket are far more likely to be physically inactive than kids from wealthier households.

— For most sports, participation rates on a regular basis keep declining, with only gymnastics, lacrosse and ice hockey experiencing increases between 2008-16.

Linda Flanagan, a freelance writer and high school cross country coach, wrote in a recent article “some 21 percent of children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty threshold,” which results in a lack of athletic opportunities.

The current youth sports culture has been said to cause burnout and physical exhaustion, overuse injuries and the loss of leisure time and unstructured play time.

I submit the kids who don’t have this opportunity lose a lot more. They miss out on all those benefits of playing sports, including long-term benefits of regular exercise, resulting in longer life spans, better mental health, better grades in school and the integration of different races. Benefits most spoken about include learning self-discipline, teamwork and resilience.

Paul Kieltyka, president and CEO of the Summit Area YMCA in New Jersey, said in the same article that, except for the Y swim team, where the more well-to-do continue to sign up, affluent families increasingly are pulling their children out of the basketball and soccer leagues and are joining private clubs.

“Wealthy families will not put their kids in Y programs when there are more and more exclusive clubs available in the area,” he said. He also noted while town associations welcome all kids in grades three through eight, a majority of the club programs increasingly require players to leave hometown teams and commit to year-round play for the club.

Research shows Europe offers alternative models for balancing youth sports just as it does for more equality in its overall economy.

Norway’s youth sports policies, for example, are deliberately egalitarian, writes Derek Thompson in “American Meritocracy Is Killing Youth Sports,” a 2018 article in The Atlantic. He noted the national lottery run by the government spends most of its profit on national sports, with most going to youth athletic clubs.

“Parents don’t need to shell out thousands to make sure their kids get to play. And play is an operative word: Norwegian leagues value participation over competition so much that clubs with athletes below the age of 13 cannot even publish game scores,” he said.

USA Hockey and its youth hockey organization recently banned body checking for players under the age of 12. It eliminated national championships at the Pee Wee (under 12) level to “discourage parents from building super teams.”

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“We felt it would be hypocritical for our sports to offer up an event that encourages people in the field to start to put together super teams at an early age,” said Ken Martel, the technical director of development at USA Hockey.

I would be interested in hearing from my readers about youth sports programs they are aware of which attempt to be inclusive in terms of crossing economic and racial barriers. I want to compile a list of such programs.

Such as The Hail Mary Project in Waterloo, where underserved youth are taught life lessons while also learning football skills. Or like the bike-riding initiative in Rochester, N.Y., that invites residents of all ages to ride the neighborhoods on donated bikes. Or Kidsports in Eugene, Ore., that provides sports options for 14,000 children in grades kindergarten through eight.

l Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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