A League of Fans Special Feature
Jim Baugh has spent most of his career in the sports industry, including a successful stint as the president of Wilson Sporting Goods. He was elected to the Sports Industry Hall of Fame in 2011.
Throughout his career, he’s been a passionate advocate for sports, fitness, and physical activity for all Americans. He founded PE4life, a non-profit focused on increasing the amount of quality physical education in schools across the country.
Baugh is currently CEO and president of PHIT America, a national non-profit initiative designed to educate Americans about the importance of physical activity and inspire them to get moving.
Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Baugh.
Reed: How did you get involved in the world of physical education and sports?
Baugh: I’ve always been involved with sports. I went to college to work on a sports administration degree because I loved sports so much. I became a part-time PE teacher, while also working part-time at a local sporting goods store, as a way to get into the business. From there it was a matter of getting to know the right people, working hard, and taking advantage of every opportunity the best I could.
Reed: You were the founder of PE4life, a non-profit dedicated to getting more quality physical education in our schools. What made you realize that we had a problem with inactivity in this country and that PE could help address it?
Baugh: Well, I’m a big believer in research. While I was president of Wilson Sporting Goods, I conducted a consumer survey and one of the questions I asked people was “What influenced you to be active as a child in sports or other physical activities?” The number one influence was moms or dads and the number two influencer was in-school physical education.
So, I thought if we really wanted to get more Americans active in the most effective and efficient way we needed to look at the schools. My belief was that if we wanted to move the dial on physical activity in this country we needed to rebuild PE. Physical education is the grassroots program for all activity in America. Our research shows us that a kid that’s in physical education is more than twice as likely to be active outside of school as a kid that’s not involved in physical education.
Reed: All of the research points to a crying need for more quality physical education in this country. Fit students are not only healthier; they miss fewer days of school due to illness, perform better academically and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems. Yet, there’s been no urgency from our national leaders to advance the cause of physical education.
Baugh: The national push has to come from leaders, leaders in government specifically. We haven’t had the leadership. If we had a president — or presidents — that really saw the value of a healthy body for a healthy mind and spirit we could turn this around very quickly. But there’s this feeling of “Let the states decide” in Washington, D.C., and that’s a big hurdle for physical education. The political stalemate in Washington D.C. makes the hurdle even bigger. But that doesn’t mean we stop fighting. It’s so obvious that physical education is critically important to the future of our country’s physical, mental and emotional makeup.
Reed: As a nation as a whole, what do we need to do to effectively attack the obesity crisis in our country?
Baugh: Well, the people that have taken the heat in this country for the obesity crisis have primarily been the leaders of the food and beverage companies in this country. But the fact is that Americans, besides eating properly, have to get much more active. As a country, if we had an equal amount of energy put into getting people active as we do getting them to eat better we’d have much less of a problem today.
Also, the focus needs to be more on physical inactivity than obesity. What we really have is a physical inactivity epidemic in this country.
Reed: Do you think the obesity crisis in general, and the physical inactivity epidemic in particular, will be a key health care topic during the next presidential campaign season?
Baugh: Well, it’s time for it. If you think about it, the entire country is talking about health care but what we really have is a sick care system. We treat people after the fact. All these surgeries, all these pills, are after people get sick. If we really want a health care system we have to bring healthy lifestyles into our collective lives and a big part of that is being active.
What we’re doing today in the health care arena clearly isn’t working. Sports participation, physical education and physical activity in general can be a big part of getting the health care system working.
Reed: The United States is known as a sports-crazed nation but in reality we’re just a nation of sedentary sports fans. Adult sports participation is pretty minimal.
Baugh: Fandom vs. activity is an interesting topic. Research shows us that fandom for sports continues to go up and up and up. However, people participating in those sports goes down and down and down.
Reed: You’ve created a new organization called PHIT America, which you describe on your website as a movement for a fit, healthy America. What are you trying to accomplish with PHIT America?
Baugh: We’re looking to create an awareness of where we’re at as a country in regards to physical activity, and also to educate Americans about the importance of sport and physical fitness activities. We support this mission with a combination of key grassroots programs as well as legislation that will get Americans more active, fit and healthy. Basically, we’re a combination of education, advocacy, and grassroots initiatives to really create a movement for a fit and healthy America.
Reed: I recently read that of 22 industrialized countries, the United States has the worst obesity stats. For example, two-thirds of Americans over age 20 are overweight and nearly one-third over age 20 are obese.
Baugh: It’s a crime. We have an obesity problem but we also have a hidden killer out there. It’s called inactivity. You can have people that are not severely overweight — or not overweight at all — that are not healthy because they’re not moving. They’re sedentary. We need to get people moving, even if they’re not overweight or obese. The body is built to move!
Our lifestyles today are amazingly sedentary. Kids don’t walk or ride their bikes to school. Their parents transport them everywhere. Adults don’t walk upstairs anymore, we take elevators all the time. Our lifestyles have changed so much and in terms of physical activity the changes have been for the worse. As the medical journal Lancet says, we have a global inactivity pandemic.
Reed: One of your big initiatives is the PHIT Act, which is pending in Congress. Talk a little about that if you would.
Baugh: The PHIT Act is about a new way to use pre-tax medical accounts. Today, Americans who have pre-tax medical accounts can use them for medicine, doctors appointments, etc. Generally speaking, for sick care expenses. We’re looking to redefine the classification of what you can use pre-tax medical accounts for. In other words, to include physical activity expenses such as health club dues, fitness equipment, sports league fees, “pay-to-play” fees, fitness instructor fees, sports and physical activity program fees. The intent of the PHIT Act is to enable Americans to be more active, fit and healthy.
We have 31 co-sponsors for the legislation, 17 Democrats and 14 Republicans. We have good momentum going on this. We think this is the right time for it. There are a lot of members of Congress that are starting to jump on board because they realize we need to build prevention into our health care system.
Bottom line, PHIT America is trying to redefine health care to build prevention and true health into our health care system. Preventive medicine is the only way we’re going to get out of this health care crisis. Sports and physical activity programs are the prevention pill.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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