If you want to understand how income inequality and opportunity-hoarding by the rich can combine in toxic ways to hurt the less fortunate, you could look in all the usual places—elite colleges, housing policy, internships.
Or you could look at high-school sports.
In the 2018–19 school year, the number of kids participating in high-school sports declined for the first time in three decades. At least, that was the headline; the reality was even worse. Thirty years ago, the high-school population itself was shrinking, due to a short-term falloff in births after the Baby Boom. This past school year is the only period on record when high-school sports participation declined even as school attendance increased.
“It doesn’t surprise me, but it definitely concerns me,” Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, told me. “Evidence on the benefits of youth sports has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. Kids who are physically active are one-tenth as likely to be obese, less likely to have chronic disease, and more likely to stay in school.”
The most obvious reason for the decline of high-school sports is that football, the Friday-night-lit mainstay of the high-school experience, is withering on the vine, likely due to fears about injuries and head trauma. The number of high-school boys playing the sport fell for the fifth straight year in 2018–19, and fewer male high schoolers now play football than at any other time this century. Many schools cannot field a full team and have resorted to a six-on-six version, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). America’s most popular sport on television could be close to a full-blown crisis.