The Participation Gap in Youth Sports is Bad for Kids and Bad for America
By Ken Reed
We recently wrote about the sad state of youth sports in America. The problems we touched on are all adult-based, driven by win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) ethos.
The overall situation is even worse than what we discussed in that piece. HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel recently had an excellent segment on the growing youth sports participation gap.
It highlights the “two-tier system” in the United States when it comes to sports for kids. The driving force is the growing cost of participation, which is pricing out millions of kids whose parents can’t afford the exorbitant fees for club and travel teams, as well as various elite sports training programs.
As the HBO feature pointed out, it’s estimated that $17 billion will be spent on youth sports this year. Many parents now spend $10,000+ per child, per year, on youth sports activities. If you want your kid trained by an elite-level coach it will cost you $150-$175 an hour.
As a result, a ton of kids are simply being priced out of the game. Total participation in youth sports in the United States has dropped 8% in just a decade.
To make things worse, community recreation and school budgets for PE and sports are being slashed. Due to financial reasons, and just as importantly, an obsessive focus on standardized testing, physical education (gym class) has almost disappeared. Intramural school sports have disappeared. The result is low-income kids have very few sports participation opportunities today. The only hope for some kids is if local charities and non-profits, like local churches, offer some type of sports options. Even if they do, the coaching skills and facilities are a far cry from what wealthier kids get to experience in the growing club sports industry.
Ironically, middle school and high school sports participation rates are dropping, even when cost isn’t a huge factor. The reason? Kids that haven’t been playing highly competitive sports in club programs or elite travel leagues since second or third grade discover that they simply can’t compete in middle school and high school with the club athletes and quit. The message these kids have received since they were very young is “If you’re not good enough to play sports at a high level you shouldn’t be playing.” Sad.
In past decades, through PE classes, school intramural sports, and low-cost community recreation programs, every kid who wanted to play sports could, and was encouraged to do so. Not today.
Too often, the kids left behind end up on their couches at home eating junk food and playing video games.
When that happens, the health costs to all Americans rise, as the childhood obesity and inactivity rates skyrocket.
It’s a situation that needs to be addressed. Now.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world, with over 150 camps in 30+ U.S. states and Canada. We discuss problems in youth sports today, including single sport specialization, the growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” the high drop-out rate in competitive sports, and the growing mental health challenges young athletes are dealing with today.
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Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Episode #23 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Olympian Benita Fitzgerald Mosley Talks Title IX, Youth Sports and the Olympics.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
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.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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