February 24, 2009
Dear Mr. Obama: Help our kids play Part III by Tom Farrey
Just about everywhere in America, inner-city kids struggle to find athletic opportunities. That's true even in places like Miami, with its reputation for producing elite football players. Miami Northwestern Senior High School won the mythical national championship in 2007 with a team that sent more than a dozen seniors to D-I programs, yet the school profile shows most students at the school couldn't pass the annual fitness exam. So is Northwestern a jock factory — or a fitness flunkie?
You'd never know it from watching pro sports, in which African-American presence has grown, but black teenagers play sports less often than they did decades ago. In 1980, no ethnic group had a higher participation rate, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Not anymore. In fact, since then, no group has lost more participants. The obesity crisis is a national problem, but especially in black and Hispanic communities.
Those at the top of the sports pyramid aren't unaware of deficits at the bottom. Perhaps no league does more than the NFL, which has created an endowment that spends $25 million a year on refurbishing community football fields in distressed areas, according to a league spokesman. But such gifts are table scraps in the all-you-can-eat feast that is pro sports, where growth has been fueled by billions in public subsidies and tax advantages.
Obama's love for pickup hoops has a chance to translate into a new grassroots sports movement.
"They're more or less P.R. campaigns," says Scott Lancaster, who ran the NFL's youth programs for 12 years until 2007.
The NFL recently stopped funding one of its main youth programs. Junior Player Development, created by Lancaster, had helped re-popularize football in poor urban areas by introducing the game to hundreds of thousands of kids through trained coaches. Many went on to play in college. Now the well-regarded program has been shut down, likely for good. The NFL cites the economy. Lancaster suspects it had more to do with posturing for negotiations with the players' union, a desire to plead poverty where none exists. "They've put youth in the middle and made it a victim," he says.
In tough times, sports funding for kids is always an easy cut. Even in the 'burbs now, school districts are talking about eliminating teams — or even entire athletic programs. "You're going to see decisions made in the next two years that we've never seen made," one Connecticut high school athletic director told me. Youth sports in these communities will become further privatized, the realm of parents who can afford to sign their kids up for an endless slate of organized activities, from sport-specific camps to private lessons to travel teams with paid coaches.
It's hard to get your mind around how much the sports activity of children has changed since we were boys. As recently as the mid-1990s, the average age at which kids began to play organized sports was 8. Now, many start slipping on uniforms by 5, and after that you rarely see kids playing games without one. When my daughter was in second grade, there were girls on her recreation league soccer team who were in their ninth season of soccer, having been signed up each fall, winter and spring since kindergarten (three seasons a year).
Check back next week for the continuation of this great article by Tom Farrey - Tom Farrey is the author of "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children," an exploration of the culture of modern youth sports.