Norway has a successful youth sports system, accessible to all. The national lottery earmarks millions for youth sports every year
By Ken Reed
I’ve been a youth sports coach for 17 years. For the most part, it’s been very rewarding. However, one of the hardest aspects has been watching kids drop out of sports because they no longer can afford to pay to play. It’s heartbreaking.
Social injustice is a hot topic these days. However, there’s one area of social injustice that doesn’t receive much attention: youth sports. Youth sports impacts millions of kids and their families.
Sadly, youth sports are far from an equal opportunity endeavour in the United States and Canada. Sport increasingly has become a pay-to-play endeavour. Household wealth is a key factor in youth sports participation.
“Sports in America have separated into sports-haves and have-nots,” said Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program.
An annual survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) in 2018 found that 33.4 per cent of kids ages six to 12 from homes with income of $25,000 or less were physically inactive (i.e., didn’t participate in any sport during the year), compared to just 9.9 per cent of kids from households that earned $100,000-plus.
And the youth sports opportunity gap is widening during the pandemic. Children of higher-income parents are spending about 2.5 more hours a week in sports activities during the pandemic than kids in lower-income families (before COVID-19, the gap was about 40 minutes per week).
Kids from homes with higher incomes participate via travel teams, expensive sports clubs, personalized training programs, elite sports leagues, etc. These opportunities are simply out of reach of poor children.
Moreover, due to the advent and growth of youth sports clubs and travel teams, relatively inexpensive youth sports opportunities – traditionally run by local recreation districts and YMCAs – are drying up.
On top of that, public schools are dropping recess, physical education classes and intramural sports programs. And many public schools now require kids to pay to play on school sports teams.
Girls, in particular, benefit from athletic participation. Sports participation lowers the chances of developing heart disease and breast cancer, cuts rates of unplanned pregnancies, lessens obesity, and boosts self-confidence and body self-esteem. And the advantages extend into adulthood: Four out of five female business executives played sports as kids.
All those benefits are missing for children who lack sports opportunities because they can’t afford to play in today’s expensive club sports culture. The casualties of this culture tend to become less and less physically active through their teen years and into adulthood, which negatively impacts their future physical, mental and economic health.
It’s another – albeit less publicized – American story of unequal opportunity.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We could prioritize broad sports participation over expensive elite athletics, especially at younger ages.
For example, Norway has a successful youth sports system, accessible to all. The national lottery earmarks millions of dollars for youth sports every year. As such, the financial burden on parents is minimal. Moreover, Norwegian youth leagues value participation over competition. As evidence, clubs with athletes below the age of 13 aren’t allowed to publish game scores. If they do, they risk expulsion.
Norway’s elite sports teams certainly don’t suffer under such egalitarian policies. At the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, the country won 39 medals – the most of any country in the history of the Olympics. The United States won only 23. Norway’s population is 5.37 million and the United States’ is 328.2 million.
In this new era of reforming American institutions in the quest for social justice, when it comes to youth sports, the Norwegian model is one Americans should look long and hard at.
— Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans, a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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Episode #6 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Need for Quality Physical Education in Our Schools is Greater Than Ever – The guest is Clayton Ellis, one of our nation’s leading advocates for getting our young people to be more physically active.
Episode #5 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Youth Sports with Positive Coaching Alliance Founder Jim Thompson – Thompson started Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) in 1998 to help create a movement to transform the culture of youth sports from “win-at-all-costs” to a positive, character-building experience.
Episode #4 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Biggest Issue in Sports Today? Brain Trauma – The guest is Patrick Hruby, a journalist who has done extensive research and in-depth writing on the topic of brain trauma in sports, most notably football.
Episode #3 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Coaching Styles with Sports Sociologist Jay Coakley – The guest is veteran sports sociologist Jay Coakley, a former college athlete who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology from Notre Dame.
Episode #2 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: College & High School Athletics: Where Do We Go From Here? The guest is John Gerdy, a former college athlete and NCAA and SEC administrator who became a sports reformer later in his career.
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.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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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