Our society has bought into the truism that youth sports improve the lives of kids in underserved communities, but we’ve failed to provide access to sports fairly. How can we make sports an unquestionable force for opportunity?
In an increasingly virtual world riddled with inequities and trauma, sport remains the ultimate connector filled with opportunity for those with access. The power of a quality coach–athlete relationship is immeasurable, and teammates turn into lifelong support systems, preparing youth for life and strengthening communities. Strong social bonds decrease anxiety and depression while increasing self-esteem, empathy, trust, cooperation and overall wellbeing. Sport has the unique ability to increase emotional regulation because of the patterned, repetitive and rhythmic nature of it. Providing youth sports to all is to society’s advantage.
Playing sports leads to positive developmental outcomes for socially vulnerable young people. Kids who participate in sports show a long-term increase in prosocial behavior, school performance, physical health and emotional well-being—and have more successful experiences in high school, college and the job market.
These outcomes make sense when sports participation is seen in its broadest social context: playing sports connects kids with coaches, managers, trainers and other adult role models, including the parents of teammates. It gives young people the chance to both be mentored and to become mentors for younger athletes. Teamwork, perseverance and leadership abilities are important for any life endeavor, and the networks and relationships that form among sports teammates often provide support and opportunity later in life.
Unfortunately, the increasing costs and elitism in youth sports have created a barrier for the kids who could benefit most. A recent report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, The Potential for Youth Sports to Improve Childhood Outcomes, describes how youth sports are pricing out entire socioeconomic classes, finding that children in lower income families experience up to an 18 percent participation gap relative to their higher income peers. The high cost of youth sports discriminates along racial lines as well, with white children far more likely to participate in school sports than nonwhite children.
Report: The Future of Youth Sports
10 in-depth topics from recruiting to brain development to esports.
We take a deep look at the best and worst-case scenarios for the future of youth sports as parents, coaches, futurists, industry experts—and former youth athletes.
Equal Opportunity Requires Equal Access
The problem is clear: youth sports have failed to achieve their potential as a great equalizer and path to opportunity. Instead, they’ve veered into pay-to-play elitism and have become an exclusionary force in society, exacerbating the wealth gap—and the health gap. So what would an ideal version of this broken system look like, and how can we get there?
It starts with the acknowledgement at the national level that access to youth sports is a public good in its own right— not just a subset of education, and not just a subset of health care.
1 in 6 kids under 18 live in poverty
Nationalize Youth Sports
One possible approach: nationalize youth sports. Norway’s youth sports system is the envy of the world. A $33 million subsidy program makes sure no Norwegian kids miss out on sports because their families can’t afford it. Adjusted for population size, that would be a $2 billion fund in the US. All 54 of Norway’s youth sports federations are signatories to the national “Children’s Rights in Sport” charter, which gives kids a say in how they train and compete, and forbids the creation of elite divisions or travel teams before kids turn 13. The results of this approach include participation rates above 90 percent and an off-the-charts per-capita Olympic medal count.
While Norway’s system appears to be a utopian situation, it’s almost certainly not America’s utopian future. There are several reasons Norway’s approach would face steep odds against adoption in the US. First, Norway’s population is roughly the size of Colorado’s, which, even given enough funding, would make central administration of a nationwide program exponentially more complex. Perhaps even more significantly, the incumbent for-profit youth sports programs that were making money hand over fist before the pandemic are not going to hand the reins to government overseers without a fight. Finally, Americans tend to be culturally allergic to anything that can be portrayed as “socialized.”
The way forward is most likely a private-public hybrid that harnesses the energy of youth sports entrepreneurs and fuels their efforts with funding from the government and the sports industry. And as bleak as the current situation may seem, a handful of seeds may be taking root that could grow into a sports ecosystem that provides opportunity fairly to kids everywhere.
600,000 Kids Served by UP2US community sports programs
The Future Is Already Here Dep’t
In 2008, Teach for America instructor Simon Cataldo handed lacrosse sticks to 11 of his students, kicking off the first lacrosse program at Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Academy. At the end of the school year, those students posted historically high scores in a statewide math test. Cataldo’s initiative blossomed into the formation of Harlem Lacrosse in 2011, a holistic youth services program focusing on building positive relationships and life skills for kids identified as most at risk to drop out of school. Today, Harlem Lacrosse has active chapters in five cities, with more than 1,300 kids participating. To date, the program’s graduates have gone on to attend dozens of the most prestigious prep schools in the US and have earned more than $40 million in college scholarships from the nation’s top colleges.
While Harlem Lacrosse is a great example of compassion, ingenuity and focused organizational effort combining to generate opportunity for several thousand young people, roughly 12 million youth under the age of 18 live in poverty. To even the playing field for all of those kids, we need system-wide changes.
Game-planning for a School Sports Comeback
The Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative is using a combination of research, partnerships, sponsorships and media exposure to spur increased participation and emphasize diversity and inclusion in youth sports nationwide. Project Play’s #DontRetireKid ad campaign, championed by Kobe Bryant, sought to stem the trend of kids dropping out of sports altogether at increasingly early ages. Project Play’s Reimagining School Sports in America project awards grants to schools designing innovative and inclusive approaches to high school sports. The grade school version of the program, called the Great Middle School Sports Search, publishes an annual best-practices guide spotlighting ingenuity in providing kids with sports opportunities among resource-challenged schools across the country.
And, fortunately, someone inside the federal government has been paying attention. In 2019, the US Department of Health and Human Services developed and published a National Youth Sports Strategy built around a stated vision “that one day all youth will have the opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, ability, or ZIP code.” The document, drawing on research from the Aspen Institute and others, is, as billed, a strategy outline rather than a plan with specifics. But it lays out an admirable set of recommendations and guideposts for decision makers at all levels of government, private industry and communities.
The closest thing to a truly national youth sports equality effort exists in the form of Up2Us Sports, a nonprofit funded primarily through AmeriCorps, the national service program that started in 1994 as a stateside Peace Corps. Over the last decade, nearly 5,000 coaches in Up2Us’s “Coach Across America” program provided sports programs for more than 600,000 kids in underserved communities.
The bipartisan CORPS Act, introduced in June 2020 as part of the COVID-19 relief effort and signed into law in early 2022, pumped more than $16 billion into the annual AmeriCorps budget, more than tripling the headcount of the organization and allowing the Coach Across America program to expand to serve millions of underprivileged kids a year. Community-based rec leagues flourished with the new resources, with local businesses and national brands matching AmeriCorps funding. Youth sports participation soared. Relieved parents pulled their kids out of expensive, time-intensive travel programs. Many travel clubs folded, but the more nimble among them stopped marketing to families of grade school kids and created partnerships with rec leagues and need-based scholarship programs to develop the emergent bumper crop of highly talented, motivated high-school-age kids whose economic situations would have prevented them from finding their potential in pre-COVID times. Much of the social stability that has developed in the US over the last 15 years is attributed to the early 2020s’ about-face in youth sports, which brought together families from all across the cultural and socioeconomic spectrum and united them over a shared passion: watching their kids have fun, compete and learn important life lessons.
Public funding for youth sports all but dried up following COVID-19, decimating rec sports programs. School districts refocused their strained resources on retrofitting their operations to deliver remote education. Some elite travel programs survived the pandemic, but the disruption of two years of sports seasons and routines, coupled with COVID-related culture-wide doubts about the value of traditional college education, undercut interest in team sports, decimating participation across all levels of society. The national social fabric, badly damaged in the tumultuous 2020 presidential election and its aftermath, remains in tatters to this day.