Youth Sports and the Potential Impact COVID-19 Could Have on Them

By Maggie Franke

Sports are supposed to be unifying. The Olympics are one of those few events where the entire world comes together and participates in the same sports, competing for the same medals and all in the same place for a short while.

However, this idealized perception of sport is not necessarily the complete picture. Last year the Des Moines Register published an article questioning the classification system in high school sports.

None of the Des Moines Public Schools have won a football game against a suburban school in the area since 2008. There is a great disparity between the suburban schools and the inner city schools in terms of resources, and this directly affects the competition.

Last year, Iowa was considering changing the classification system to include the socioeconomic status of the schools. Schools with similar levels would be in the same class instead of the massive disparity that exists now.

The problem of this disparity is bad enough, but sports should not be a place where that disadvantage is exacerbated in the form of suburban schools repeatedly dominating city schools in sports.

Not all states organize their divisions the same way that Iowa does. Each state’s high school league or administrative power organizes its divisions in its own way. For example, California used to organize its divisions based solely on enrollment size.

 In 2017, the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section voted to change this determination process. Instead, each sport from each school would be evaluated by their “regular-season record, strength of schedule and playoff performance.” This change would only apply to sports with bracketed playoff competition.

Each state has its own advantages and flaws within its division-making process. However, enrollment size is by far the norm for high school state divisions nationwide, and that does not necessarily level the playing field.

Why are youth sports already at risk?

Last year, ESPN launched their partnership with Aspen Institute’s Project Play and the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign in an effort to increase youth sports participation. This followed a 7% decrease in sports participation of kids aged six to 12 over the last decade.

Bethany Rubin Henderson, president of the America Scores program, told the Undefeated that there is a major division in youth sports right along the economic equity divide. Travel sports are expensive, and there are major costs to participation in recreational leagues as well.

Henderson said in the interview with the Undefeated, “Even if they’re playing, at the most, rec level, they need a ball, they need cleats, they need equipment for their sport. The ability of parents in our inner cities to do that, even if they can afford it, is very limited.”

According to a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin in 2017 in which they had 949 parents complete an anonymous questionnaire, they discovered some alarmingly divisive statistics about youth sports.

The majority of the parents had a total household income of at least $100,000 and had obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education. On top of this, the majority of these households spent $1500 annually on their child’s participation in club sports activities.

How will COVID-19 impact this scenario?

States across the country have closed pools, beaches and recreation areas for the remainder of the summer or at least until they believe it is fit to reopen them. Many athletes and teams will have no places to train and their seasons might be cancelled altogether. 

In sports like swimming, where a pool is necessary to train, this will have a major impact on athletes’ ability to stay in shape. In all sports, this could drastically impact the already extreme inequity of resources.

The 2008 drop in youth sport participation was largely in-part a result of the recession. CBS Sports noted, “Just as it was then, the problem now is that once sports become out of reach of a family’s budget, there’s no telling whether they’ll return to the fray. As Carrie Langford, COO for the North Texas Celtic Futbol Club — a 65-team portion of the lucrative select soccer business in North Texas — puts it, “The question is, we don’t know who’s coming back and who can afford it.”

Families who already cannot afford to provide their children with the opportunity of youth sports will be facing even more difficulties if COVID-19 continues to have such a devasting impact on already struggling communities. Youth sports might not recover if action isn’t taken to save it.

What can be done to preserve youth sport?

One professional athlete that joined the Don’t Retire, Kid campaign was Kobe Bryant. He said in a video promoting the campaign, “It’s all in what you can imagine… Growing up in Philadelphia, I didn’t have much room, so I had to make my basement work. To me, that was like the Great Western Forum.”

Preserving the magic and fun of youth sport will encourage children to participate. Factors like over-specialization and hyper-competitiveness too early in development take away from kids abilities to imagine themselves. Instead, they are focused on goals and winning and not finding a love for sport.

Some kids really just need the opportunity and means by which to participate. In 1994, public school teacher Julie Kennedy started teaching her students soccer in hopes that a constructive after-school activity would lower her students’ risk of gang activity and other dangers. This model gave birth to the America Scores program.

Serving 13,000 students in 311 public and charter schools across 12 major cities in the U.S., America Scores provides an hour and half of after school programming to their students, 85% of them living below the poverty line. Three days of soccer practice and two days of poetry or service, this program helps the kids involved gain higher self-confidence, better in-class participation and overall physical health.

These organizations and more notice the downward trend of youth sports and the inequality of resources within them. They have taken action to ensure that every child has the opportunity to participate in sport if they want to.

This video of Kobe Bryant truly encapsulates the hope that still exists for the future of youth sport and the magic within them. Here’s to the future Kobe Bryant’s who can overcome the current situation that sports is in to live a life loving sport and encouraging those to participate no matter their circumstance.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash. Photo taken by Arseny Togulev.