Girls in particular seem to benefit from athletics: Participation reduces the chances of developing heart disease and breast cancer, cuts rates of unplanned pregnancies, lessens obesity, and boosts body self-esteem. And the advantages extend into adulthood: Four out of five female business executives played sports as kids, and women who go on to play sports in college are 25 percent more likely than those who don’t to develop political aspirations. “Kids who are excluded for socioeconomic reasons are missing out on all of that,” said Mark Hyman, an assistant teaching professor at the George Washington School of Business and the author of Until it Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids. “Sports would help them develop more fully as people.”
A two-tiered system of youth sports—one in which the wealthy play on pricey private clubs and the less well-off are limited to uncompetitive community programs—also undermines one of the quieter virtues of team sports: They can be places of organic integration, where economic and racial differences are supplanted by ordinary friendship and the collective desire to win. A football player interviewed by Canadian researchers on his sports experience explained how that social mixing played out on his team:
Before football, I had never like had different friends of different races. And in football, everyone’s just, yeah your Jamaican kids, Somalian kids, people from Singapore, some Italians. So it really helps you learn how to be, how to deal, like not deal, but how to make friends, diverse friends.
Groups of all kinds, including community organizations, nonprofits, major league sports teams, and corporations, are mobilizing to bring athletic opportunities to all kids. Many gathered at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit in September to share their ideas. Theresa Lou Bowick from Rochester, New York, talked about the no-frills bike-riding initiative she founded six years ago, Conkey Cruisers, that invites residents of all ages to ride around the neighborhoods on donated bikes; riders meet at the corner of Conkey and Clifford Avenues for nightly “voyages.” In Eugene, Oregon, Kidsports provides sports options for 14,000 kids in grades kindergarten through eight, regardless of income or athletic ability. Club teams and other expensive sports options have cut the number of kids who participate in Kidsports, said Beverly Smith, the executive director. But Smith embraces the fact that her inclusive local group is the default organization for some: “It’s a point of pride,” she said. Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Major League Baseball, among other organizations, pledged to make sports more available to low-income children.
Although such programs are certainly improving kids’ lives, they’re “a drop in a bucket” compared to the scale of the problem, said Hyman, the author of Until It Hurts. Still, Farrey of the Sports and Society program is hopeful that the alliance of forces striving to make sports available for kids in all communities will be able to learn from one another and drive progress. “There’s a great desire for solutions in this space,” Farrey said. “It’s something that government and the private sector … should be subsidizing, because they all benefit.”