March 2, 2009
Dear Mr. Obama: Help our Kids Play Part IV
By third grade, in some sports, elite travel teams are being formed that stand apart from the in-town recreation leagues that historically have provided opportunities for all kids. Ghettoized, the recreation leagues begin to wither, while the travel kids go on to dominate varsity rosters. We're effectively holding high school tryouts now in grade school, sorting the weak from the strong before kids even hit puberty.
You seem like a man who can appreciate that youth sport is the most important institution in all of sports, because that's where the magic begins. It's where we learn to love these games, picking up fitness habits and rooting interests that can last a lifetime. But many kids start falling away from sports around age 11 now. The system has become less accessible to the late bloomer, the economically disadvantaged, and the child of a one-parent household, the physically or mentally disabled, and the kid who needs exercise more than any other: the clinically obese.
We also risk burning out the "winners" of this premature struggle. It's worth keeping in mind the modern cautionary tale of Elena Delle Donne, the 2008 national high school player of the year in girl’s basketball. Soon after arriving at University of Connecticut with a full ride, she quit the game, later explaining that she had stopped enjoying hoops back in middle school. All those AAU national championships, all those sessions with the personal trainer her parents had hired for her since second grade, led to no return on investment. She chose to walk on instead with a volleyball team at the University of Delaware, closer to home and friends.
Far more problematic is the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which charters the U.S. Olympic Committee and makes requirements of the national governing bodies of individual sports. The law asks that the USOC coordinate amateur sports activity in the country, but it's an unfunded mandate, a real bridge to nowhere (which was a specialty of its author, former Senator Ted Stevens). The USOC has focused its limited resources on the elite of the elite, making little effort to push coaches' education down to the youth level. In Europe, coaches are certified and trained in athlete development; here, the scene is dominated by millions of parent volunteers, well-meaning but winging it. Attrition drops when coaches are trained in working with kids. It's been proven.
- A bunch of your advisers got game, from education secretary nominee Arne Duncan (former Harvard co-captain) to attorney general nominee Eric Holder (former Columbia player) to brother-in-law Craig Robinson (current Oregon State men's coach). So get them in a huddle and come up with a new model for grassroots sports, built from the bottom up with a simple premise: sport as a human right, just like education. Here's how to do it:
• Offer incentives for schools to create more teams, not fewer, which is what is happening in the era of No Child Left Behind, with its strictly academic focus. The least that schools can do is modernize P.E. by connecting teens with local clubs that sponsor lesser-known sports in which they might find success. "You have to connect the national governing bodies with the schools," says Judy Young, a top expert on school-based sports. "Schools just can't teach the full array of 45 sports seen in the Olympics."
• Restore funding for urban parks and rec centers that have been gutted in recent years. Perhaps you can pay for it with a tax on the pro leagues that do business in these cities and whose empires have been built on the public dime.
• Rewrite the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act so that Job 1 for the USOC is tending to the base of the participation pyramid. While you're at it, enlist Larry Probst, its new chairman, who comes from the video game industry, to share what he knows about creating games that engage today's children. "A lot needs to be learned about making sports a contemporary experience for kids," says Lancaster, who while at the NFL experimented with hybrid games that married hand-held video with real play. "We're still asking them to play games the way their dads did a generation ago."
The key is getting progressive, not sentimental, about youth sports. Parents just aren't going to let their kid ride a bike halfway across town anymore to play sandlot ball, unsupervised. The murder of Adam Walsh changed all that.
And now, you can change it again, for the better. Imagine a Chicago Olympics in 2016 — the first truly "Sport for All" Olympics, as you can pitch it when the host city is selected in October 2009, deploying an ideal celebrated by the IOC. An Olympics in which national governing bodies like U.S. Swimming and U.S. Badminton already are making new efforts to go into the inner city and get kids involved. An Olympics with a legacy of facilities that will benefit regular athletes and not just elites. An Olympics measured by growth in the number of Chicago kids who play sports into their teenage years and beyond. An Olympics that can cap your eight-year run as a president known for fresh ideas, with a statement in your adopted hometown about the possibilities of American sport. The moment is there for the taking, Mr. Obama. It's one Teddy and Ike would surely seize. I hope that gets you thinking.
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