By Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans

For the most part, the sports media is falling dreadfully short when it comes to the in-depth examination of our major sports problems, why they exist, and what can be done to mitigate them or prevent them.

Even when key issues and scandals are identified by sports journalists, neither root cause analysis, nor possible remedies are typically offered. Potential new models or systems of sport aren’t considered. And rarely is there any mention of current or potential reform initiatives on particular issues.

From a journalistic ethics perspective, the sports media has the corporate social responsibility to give us more than the sugar of Sportsworld coverage: e.g., pro and college game stories, commentary on personalities, trade rumors, injury reports, etc. What’s needed is more fruits and vegetables coverage: the “whys” and “hows” of our current sports problems.

“The Scandal Beat, with its drama and spectacular falls from grace, is much less adept at managing the next step: a robust discussion, prominently and persistently conducted, of why these scandals keep happening and what can be done to prevent them,” wrote investigative reporter Daniel Libit in a Columbia Journalism Review article.

Libit was writing about the sports media’s coverage of the problems and abuses in college sports, but the same could be said regarding the sports media and its treatment of many of the other problems, issues, and abuses in sports today.

As such, the following 2024 New Year’s resolutions are proposed for the nation’s sports media.

Resolution One: Revisit CTE and Change the Focus of Our Coverage. For several years, the sports media did a good job identifying the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) problem at the pro sports level, primarily with the NFL and NHL. The focus was on concussions as the cause of CTE. However, the latest research on CTE reveals that the primary cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is not concussions but repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head. That finding is even scarier than previous research results and it must be communicated much more broadly.

In addition, more emphasis needs to be placed on the impact of brain injuries on young athletes. A Boston University CTE Center study found that of contact sports participants who died under age 30, 41.4 percent had signs of CTE.

“This study clearly shows that the pathology of CTE starts early,” says Ann McKee, director of the Center and a professor of neurology and pathology at BU.

“The fact that over 40 percent of young contact and collision sport athletes in the UNITE Brain Bank have CTE is remarkable considering that studies of community brain banks show that fewer than 1 percent of the general population has CTE.”

Furthermore, attention needs to be brought to the fact that at the high school and youth levels, the majority of contact sport practices and games are conducted without any medical professional (trainer or doctor) on the sideline. That is a very dangerous situation.

Resolution Two: Spotlight the Nation’s Physical Inactivity Epidemic. A new study in the American Journal of Medicine found that on a national level, physical inactivity prevalence is unacceptably high.

Especially troubling is that our children and adolescents are heavier, less fit, and less active than ever before. Meanwhile, physical education classes, recess time, and intramural sports programs continue to be cut in K-12 schools.

According to “The 2022 United States Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth,” our children and youth earned a D- in “Overall Physical Activity” and a D in “Sedentary Behaviors.”

It’s important to note that students who are physically active in high school are more likely to be physically active as adults, an outcome that would not only positively impact the quality of life for those young people, but would also lower our national healthcare bill.

Resolution Three: Take a Deep Dive on the Holistic Health of College Athletes. Here’s the mantra shared by leaders at the highest level of college sports: Grow revenues at all costs! One of those costs is the declining mental health of college athletes.

During a very short span in 2022, five college student-athletes committed suicide.

A University of Michigan study found that 63 percent of student-athletes reported having an emotional or mental health issue that had affected their athletic performance in the four weeks prior to the survey. The stigma around mental health is even greater for athletes than it is the rest of the student body. In the Michigan study, only 10 percent of athletes with mental health conditions reached out for help with mental challenges compared to 30 percent of college students in general.

Conference realignment, which dominated sports media coverage in 2023, will undoubtedly negatively impact student-athletes’ academic performance and mental health. These athletes will be away from their campuses, classrooms, and classmates at a significantly greater rate moving forward due to the extensive travel demands resulting from conferences no longer being geographically based.

Our college sports system has been ill-conceived from day one. Trying to marry elite athletics programs with the fantasy of “student-athletes” on college campuses has been a failure on multiple levels.

The United States is the only country in the world where elite athletic teams are sponsored by educational institutions (high schools and colleges), rather than by either government sports programs, large club sports organizations, or professional sports franchises, as is the case in other countries.

In most countries, colleges and universities offer physical education, intramural-type athletics programs, and maybe small club sports teams (usually student-run), but nothing like what we see with big-time college football and men’s basketball in this country.

The bottom line is universities shouldn’t be in the business of trying to run a multi-business entertainment business.

College sports have completely lost their way. New models for college athletics, which have the strong potential to enhance student-athlete mental health, and the overall student-athlete experience, need to be seriously considered and presented by the sports media.

Resolution Four: Seriously Examine the Role “Adults” Have Played in our Broken Youth Sports System. There’s too much “adult” in youth sports.

A deep-dive into the world of youth sports is needed, where the pressures placed on kids as young as five and six years old are becoming unbearable.

It’s parents and coaches that push kids to specialize in a single sport long before they reach the age of 10, which too often leads to overuse injuries and emotional burnout. It’s parents and coaches that focus on college athletic scholarships for young athletes despite statistics that show that only one to two percent of high school senior athletes get any type of financial aid for sports. It’s parents and coaches that verbally – and sometimes physically – abuse game officials, some of whom are only teenagers.

According to a study by the National Alliance of Youth Sports, 70 percent of all children who play adult-organized youth sports drop out by the time they’re 13. The reason most often cited by kids is that it’s no longer fun. The primary reason it’s no longer fun? Overzealous adults, in the form of parents and/or coaches.

More than 75 percent of all high school officials quit due to adult behavior. In addition, 80 percent of new youth and high school officials in all sports leave the job after only two years, according to the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO). The chief cause? Pervasive pressures from parents and coaches who have completely lost perspective.

The sports media should look at any existing or potential solution that gives youth sports back to the kids. The solution will ultimately come from answering the question, “What’s best for the kids?”

Resolution Five: Bring Attention to Title IX and the Growing Gaps Between Male and Female Athletes in the Areas of Funding and Opportunities. After celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX on June 23, 2022, we collectively padded ourselves on the back and took our eye off the issue of gender equity in sports.

According to an excellent USA Today study, for every dollar colleges and universities spent on travel, equipment and recruiting for men’s teams in recent years, they spent just 71 cents on women’s teams. Over a two-year period, colleges and universities spent nearly $125 million more for men than women in the aforementioned budget areas for the sports of basketball, baseball/softball, golf, soccer, swimming and diving, and tennis.

The USA Today analysis used revenue and expense reports from schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) — the highest level in Division I — submitted to the NCAA for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 fiscal years. It’s important to note that because the study only looked at sports with comparable men’s and women’s teams, the figures above don’t include football. The gap in spending in college athletics between men’s and women’s athletic programs is even greater when football is considered.

Title IX is a fair and just law. It’s shameful that more than 50 years after its enactment our schools still aren’t treating each gender equally. The sports media should pressure the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to aggressively enforce Title IX and to improve education initiatives regarding the law.

Resolution Six: Investigate Legalized Sports Gambling Dangers and Recommend Necessary Checks and Balances. Legalized sports gambling has proliferated quickly, state by state, across the United States in a hodgepodge way. In many respects, we’re in a Wild Wild West era of legalized sports gambling, in which almost anything goes.

Consumers are being bombarded with excessive – and, in some cases, dangerous – ads and promotions for sports gambling today.

Realistically, legal sports gambling is here to stay. And there are benefits to a legal system vs. the shady underground world of illegal sports gambling. However, legalized sports gambling must be effectively and efficiently regulated, taxed, and policed. To that end, a lot more guardrails need to be implemented.

A good place to start is to examine what has worked and not worked in Nevada and the numerous countries across the globe that have had legal sports gambling for decades. Nevada and countries like the United Kingdom (legalized sports gambling since 1961), Australia, Spain and Italy, have had legal sports gambling much longer than the United States. They all tend to have more stringent rules and regulations, especially in the area of marketing and promotions, than the majority of states that have implemented legalized sports gambling in our country.

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To conclude, the sports media has a journalistic obligation to cover sports, a major socio-cultural institution in the United States, well beyond the field of play. And to examine sports-based issues with much more depth than is prevalent today.

Here’s hoping 2024 is the year more sports journalists adopt New Year’s resolutions like those presented above and say “Wait a minute! Let’s look at the foundation of these issues and see if some significant changes need to be made in terms of new systems or models that could better mitigate the negatives and enhance the positives for all sports stakeholders.”


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