Fighting Against 'Pay to Play' Sports

A barrier-breaking former college athlete who hates the "economic meritocracy" that keeps kids from playing sports, says getting more youth involved "breeds understanding and racial balance."

Darryl Hill, who in the early 1960s became the first African-American to play for the Naval Academy and later the first to play in the ACC, thinks it's a travesty that more youngsters don't play sports, especially given the rate of childhood obesity across America and the proven long-term benefits of athletics and competition.

Last January, Hill, 69, established Kids Play USA, based in Laurel, Md. On the foundation's website, which features plentiful statistics on the benefits of sports, he say, "Fifty years ago, I fought to eliminate racial discrimination in college athletics so that all young people could have an opportunity to play varsity sports at any college or university. Now "¦ I am working to eliminate economic discrimination in youth sports so that all children can have an opportunity to play for any organized youth or school team."

This week, the Maryland State House honored Hill, a standout wide receiver for the University of Maryland, as a barrier-breaker and an advocate for youth sports. Said House Speaker Michael Busch, "Darryl Hill is to Southern college football what Jackie Robinson is to baseball."

This interview, conducted by Jody Brannon, has been edited for length and clarity.

It came to my attention a couple of years ago from a business colleague of mine in Loudoun County, Va., that a couple of friends of her teenage son had not been able to play on his baseball team because they couldn't afford to pay the fees. I said, "What do you mean?" So I started looking into that, and I found out youth sports are so commercialized these days that a large portion of young kids aren't playing.

Sports is becoming an economic meritocracy. Once, it was how athletic the kid was or how much effort they put in, but now it's economic. The kid whose daddy can write the check gets to play. We want to make it so any kid can play. Our main sports are baseball, and softball, boys' and girls' lacrosse, soccer, field hockey, wrestling, and football, and maybe track and field. Basically kids 8 to 14 are at the heart of our target, though we can go a bit younger or older.

I strongly, strongly oppose the notion that African-Americans or low-income kids don't play because they don't like it. I think children will play any game in any sport, given an opportunity to play. They don't play because they can't afford to play.

I think sports are an integral part of our society, not only to the individuals who play but to the community in which they live. Sports brings kids together, it breeds understanding and racial balance. And then the young people who play are typically just better citizens top to bottom — less likely to drop out of school, do drugs, get pregnant, be touched by the law. One of the most startling statistics I've read is a study of female executives in Fortune 500 top companies [in which] upward of 90 percent had played high school sports, which speaks volumes on what sports do.

Sports teach people camaraderie, time management, winning and losing, balance, and teamwork, and patience, being more assertive, more aggressive. The list goes on and on.

On the downside, if a kid is idle, we know where that can often lead — and not just to bad health and obesity but to other antisocial behavior. That's particularly telling in the underserved communities, but they're the ones being impacted the most by the commercialization of youth sports.

The number of kids who played sports 15 years ago has fallen off by a startling number of 50 percent. So twice as many kids are standing on the corner now from just 15 years ago. And that number is getting bigger and bigger.

Sports budget are slashed by local government and by schools. It's nice to emphasize education, but physical development is important to growing up. Cutting back sports and recreation departments' budgets is short-sighted.

In 2011, 61 percent of high schools in the U.S. charged some sort of participation fee to play varsity sports. The underserved kid is going to get hurt the most by this. A kid in a family with an aggregate income of less than $60,000 is four times more likely to be kept from playing because of fees.

That's because of the phenomenon of travel teams. Travel teams are typically teams comprised of the better players. In many sports, if you don't play on the travel team, you're missing the chance to build the skill level to play at a higher level. A kid who plays travel lacrosse or travel baseball is much better prepared for high school [competition].

Basketball is the only sport that's available in terms of free play, with pickup games. Now if you want to judge sport by ethnicity, whether we like it or not, there are some parallels between race and income. Of the two sports mostly dominated or populated by African-Americans, basketball is cheap and football is subsidized. No way you're going to enter ninth grade and start playing [competitive] baseball, lacrosse, volleyball. And if you see the makeup of those teams, you see the [racial and ethnic] difference.

Our mission is not to push kids up on the ladder. Our mission is to get the absolute number of children playing sports up. It's deplorably down. And we have to do something about the adults who are proselytizing for youth sports. It's become an industry. Why does a kid need to travel to Kentucky to play in a baseball tournament or go to Connecticut to play in a lacrosse game or go to Florida to play soccer? This travel concept serves the [affluent] parent and those making money off the deal.

Our mission isn't to change that. Our goal, in a reasonable time — two to three years — is to make the state of Maryland a model state where every kid who wants to play organized sports can play. No one is turned away from the sport they want to play, with some extremely expensive exceptions like skiing, ice hockey, or gymnastics, where we don't think we'd have the impact or return. Golf and tennis have their own issues, but there are programs to help kids like First Tee.

Our goal isn't necessarily to prepare kids for college scholarships. Our goal is to get the average kid back on the playing field, playing sports. We're focusing on underserved kids, but not totally. You can have a middle-class family with three or four kids, each costing a couple of grand a season per sport. That's just not doable. It's not unusual for me to come upon families spending $10,000 a year [on youth sports], and that's not in most people's budget.

We work with grants and contributions — and sponsorships. We go first to all the sport leagues and ask if they'll make room for kids who are underserved. We ask the team or league to waive or reduce the fees. Then we go to equipment manufacturers to contribute — the Wilsons and Spauldings of the world — and the retailers like Dick's or Sports Authority or Modell's, and we're getting good support there. Then there's the foundations like the Cal Ripken Foundation which give equipment grants.

Hopefully, we'll be replicated by other groups in other states. We're going to expand in Maryland and Washington, D.C., first, then to Northern Virginia and maybe Delaware and then the Mid-Atlantic. By that time, the Michigans and Nevadas will pick it up. I think this is a model that works, and I think its doable. We're not trying to cure cancer with 50 years of research. This is an immediately solvable problem, and there's an urgency to solve it.


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Are you part of the demographic that is the Next America? Are you a catalyst who fosters change for the next generation? Or do you know someone who is? The Next America welcomes first-person perspectives from activists, thought leaders and people representative of a diverse nation. Email us. And please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Jody Brannon contributed to this article