How to beat the widening youth sports gap

Growing body of research shows that minorities and lower-income students (and mediocre athletes) have less access
By: | August 29, 2019
In large urban schools and other cash-strapped districts, demand for youth sports roster spots often outpaces supply because of limited budgets and a lack of facilities. And those limited roster spots go to the top athletes.In large urban schools and other cash-strapped districts, demand for youth sports roster spots often outpaces supply because of limited budgets and a lack of facilities. And those limited roster spots go to the top athletes.

Young people from low-income families face yet another developmental gap. Researchers have found that, as with technology, wealthier students have greater access to organized youth sports than do less affluent children.

And this gap has ramifications beyond the playing field. It has also created an exercise deficit for low-income youths, says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports & Society Program at The Aspen Institute, a think tank and research nonprofit.

“Children from lower-income families cannot afford this youth sports arms race,” Farrey says. “These children have a more limited set of sports options in their communities, and they go to schools that offer a more limited set of opportunities and roster spots for the student population.”

Participation rates are dropping across the board, but noticeably among children whose families make less than $50,000 per year, The Aspen Institute found in its “State of Play 2018 Trends and Developments” report. Families of student-athletes have an average income of just over $90,000 and spend an average of nearly $700 per year on athletics, the organization also found.

An April survey conducted by The Harris Poll for investment firm TD Ameritrade found that 1 in 3 parents reported taking fewer vacations, and 1 in 5 delayed retirement or took a second job to fund their children’s sports activities.

Rising athletics fees charged by schools also depress participation rates, says policy researcher Anamarie Whitaker, lead author of the recent RAND Corp. “Who Plays, Who Pays?” study.

To close the gap, the report recommends that:

  • schools and community organizations share field space, facilities and equipment
  • younger students try multiple sports so they don’t overspecialize and limit future opportunities
  • coaches receive training so they can help young people develop social and emotional skills

“To reduce the burden on families, school leaders could also help with fees and transportation,” Whitaker says. “We also found that there were lots of time commitments expected of parents, in the form of volunteering, that could be an additional burden.”

Bodies in motion build better brains

The school sports model works better in private schools and well-funded districts, which tend to have more money and can create as many teams as necessary to meet student demand, says Farrey, of the Sports & Society Program. Such schools can support varsity, junior varsity and intramural teams for all students who want to play a sport, regardless of their abilities.


Read more: Does Europe have a better youth sports system?


But in large urban schools and other cash-strapped districts, demand for roster spots often outpaces supply because of limited budgets and a lack of facilities. And limited roster spots go to the top athletes, Farrey says.

“There will be one varsity basketball team and 80 kids try out,” he says. “Fifteen make the team and only eight will get significant playing time.”

Schools and communities are innovating to solve the problem by sharing fields and facilities and by co-hosting tournaments. But educators, and society as a whole, should consider shifting physical education and athletics from extracurricular activities to core parts of every school’s curriculum. Evidence shows that kids who play sports do better in school and are more likely to go to college, Farrey says.

“Bodies in motion produce brains that function better cognitively,” he says. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘If sports is this good for students, why is sports still treated as a ‘nice to have’ as opposed to an experience that should be integrated into the life of every student?”


Read more: High schools crack down on concussions


Students may also need help from politicians and policymakers, considering the most significant shift in sports participation was produced by Title IX, a federal policy. “Do we need a Title IX for kids with disabilities or for kids who are just below-average athletes?” Farrey asks.

Communities also need to expand their perspectives of youth sports beyond just celebrating district and state championship teams, he adds. “What about the schools that are simply providing sports opportunities for every kid in the school who wants to do them?”

Beyond the economics, a recent Fox News report blamed parents’ aggressive and belligerent behavior for prompting some students to quit playing sports.

Youth sports reforms underway in New York City

Research found that as of a few years ago, black and Latino students in New York City public schools had access to 10 fewer teams than white students.

A resulting class-action lawsuit—filed in June 2018 by a group of minority students against New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League—appears to be forcing reforms.

Advocacy by these same students convinced the New York City Council to pass a bill requiring greater transparency around the Department of Education’s athletic funding decisions and how it allows schools to create new sports teams.


Read more: Schools add new sports to appeal to more students


And now, the Department of Education appears open to solutions such as allowing smaller schools to form joint athletic programs, says Melissa Iachan, senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which represents the students.

“We’re optimistic that we will see some meaningful changes and that within a few years, the disparity in access should be greatly reduced,” Iachan says.

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.