Sports: Let’s Reimagine The Great Equalizer

Several prominent non-profits involved in youth sports such as Laureus, Beyond Sport, Aspen Institute Project Play, as well as my own organization, all are hosting conferences in a span of about two weeks. A common thread among all of these recent and upcoming events will be the issues of inequity, access and participation. 

The vast majority of commentators, advocates and program administrators now identify inequities that deny full access to participation based on income, gender, ethnicity or ability as a problem that our society should solve. This commitment to closing the play equity gap that prevents many young people from having the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of sport and other physical activity is admirable, but it needs to be more than a talking point.

Having recognized the problem we must now elevate the discussion about youth sports in a way that leads policymakers to change their attitudes about sports. 

Youth sport and other forms of organized physical activity are not luxuries. American schools and other institutions should stop treating them like they are. We need a major rethinking in which policymakers come to understand that sports and physical activity are essential, and that supporting them politically and financially in schools represents a sound investment in our young people and to the economic prosperity of our country. 

Sports participation correlates to a wide range of positive social, emotional, educational and health outcomes. Kids who play sports have higher GPAs, graduation rates and lower BMIs. I could go on and on, but you already know the truth.

Sports and related activities can help combat a multitude of costly problems that we face in this country. Let’s consider just two – obesity and dropping out of school.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health calculate that simply reducing the number of obese kids by 4.18% would save the United States $8.1 billion in direct medical costs and $13.8 billion in lost productivity. Additionally, “if 18 percent more U.S. elementary school children participated in 25 minutes of physical activity three times a week,” the overall savings in medical costs would amount to $21.9 billion over their lifetimes. If all young people ages 8 to 11 could avoid obesity, the total savings would hit $62.3 billion.

High school dropouts are another drain on public coffers. The UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies, for example, commissioned a 2014 study which found that nearly 100,000 California high school students drop out each year. The estimated lifetime social cost per drop-out was $381,000 to $580,000, for a total of $37- to $56 billion per annual class, or cohort.

Many variables affect the costs of providing youth sports and physical activity, but I guarantee that in a school setting the cost of providing every elementary school child with 25 minutes of physical activity just three times a week will be a drop in the bucket compared to the expense of allowing kids be inactive and alienated.

I am well aware of the difficulty of proving a causal relationship between sports and positive outcomes, but the correlation is well documented and impossible to deny.

Dr. Robin Avelar La Salle, the co-founder and CEO of Orenda Education, offers a persuasive explanation of how sports can lead to success in other walks of life. Dr. Avelar La Salle argues that well-conceived sports programs can create the conditions for students to thrive by providing affiliation, advocacy and agency. Sports enable students to develop a sense of affiliation to their teams and school, and also create positive social networks that can help them navigate many potential problems. Kids need a champion, an advocate. Many students, particularly those from challenged families or communities, lack a strong advocate. Sports comes with a built-in advocate, the coach. Finally, sports give kids greater agency by allowing them to see the connection between their own effort and their success. This in turn often leads to greater resilience or grit; a growth mindset if you will.

As we advocate for more sports and physical activity programming, it is important to remember that simply funding a program is not a guarantee of success. What we continue to discover in our work at the foundation through both experience and research is that the best programs are intentional. That is, they have a clear purpose and desired outcomes. Coaches and other leaders are carefully educated about their roles. And, these programs serve the needs of kids not some agency, club or school. Implementing such sustaining programs takes thought, planning, discipline, and wait for it … more resources.

It’s great for people to get together and discuss youth sports at conferences. But we need more than that. We need parents, students, advocates and policymakers to get beyond the talking phase. We need to implement real changes - systematic change to what we choose to fund in our schools and how we support the growth and development of our kids. We need changes that recognize that sport and physical activity are necessities not luxuries. Every year that we wait means added expenses for you and me and is another needless delay in providing what is best for our children.  

Follow me on Twitter.

I have more than 25 years of diversified experience with a commitment to leadership and service. Prior to LA84, I served as Senior VP and Chief of Staff to the Publisher...