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Experts worry pandemic could increase 'play inequity' in youth sports

ASU panel discusses how time away, high costs might lower participation

June 16, 2020

As Americans warily begin to reengage during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are having to weigh the risks and benefits of returning their kids to team competition. A panel of experts sponsored by the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University last week expressed concerns that the societal shutdown this spring may worsen inequities in the world of youth sports.

Eric Legg researches youth sports as an assistant professor in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU. He sees two possibilities when youth sports start to resume.

“I’m hearing people talk that this is an opportunity for a reset, a chance to go back to localized, community-based sports, and that people won’t want to spend big money to travel,” he said.

“This is a chance to get back to the primary purpose of sports, which is to be life-skills development.”

But he sees another possibility.

“What I fear will happen is that it actually will exacerbate the haves and have-nots,” he said.

“The folks who have the resources to take the precautions continue on and those who don’t are left out.”

And it might be worse for girls, according to Ahada McCummings, national director for strategic partnerships for the Up2Us Sports organization. She said that girls already drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys, especially at ages 13 and 14.

“My pressing concern is that with the pandemic happening, and the protests happening, and all the stressors … girls will drop off at a higher rate,” she said.

“They’ve been gone and they’re not attached to their sports. Will they get to a point of, ‘I need to get back to my sport’ or will they say, ‘I have other stuff and I’m going that route’?”

A full return for all kids in youth leagues is likely not imminent across the country as many counties remain in at least partial shutdown. Also, a recent poll by the Global Sport Institute asked whether parents would allow their children to return to their organized sport, and 62% said they would not due to concerns of catching COVID-19, while 63% said that they wouldn't allow their child to return until there was a vaccine.

Bobby Dulle, general manager for the Phoenix Rising Football Club, said his organization’s youth soccer teams have started phasing in optional practices. He said the key is lots of communication and flexibility.

“Sometimes they have to go to different locations. Sometimes the parents can’t get out of the car,” he said.

Coaches wear masks, players don’t share balls or pinnies and the field is marked off in a 10-foot-by-10-foot grid to keep kids apart. After two weeks of individual work, the players are now practicing in groups of four.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said. “We can’t say, ‘This is what it will look like in September.’”

Up2Us Sports has developed an online curriculum for coaches to keep girls engaged in sports, McCummings said, adding that while maintaining activity is important, the real value for girls is relationships.

“Their relationship to their teammates and more importantly, their relationship to their coach, matters," she said.

“Girls need to be part of a team culture that says, ‘My development matters as well. I may not be the best player, but I have the opportunity to participate and contribute,’” she said.

Youth coaches also need to be trained to deal with racism in the sport, the experts said.

Scott Brooks, director of research for the Global Sport Institute and moderator of the panel, studies “everyday racism” in sports, such as pushing young black football players away from trying out for quarterback.

“It’s looking at microaggresions and unequal applications of rules and standards,” he said. “Sometimes coaches come up with rules that only apply to particular people.”

That’s why the adults need to be deliberate about making sure that young players are reaping the benefits of youth sports, said Brooks, who also is an associate professor with the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

“We can’t just pretend that throwing them on the field with balls automatically leads to good outcomes,” he said.

McCummings said that Up2Us Sports offers “trauma-informed” training for coaches.

“This is so important in black and brown communities,” she said. “We want coaches to be able to identify what trauma is and what those stressors are, and also work with students so we’re not just focusing on bad behavior but focusing on what they’re dealing with.”

Renata Simril, president and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, told the panel that her organization works to provide the health and socioemotional benefits of sports to kids in underserved communities. LA84 was founded with money left over from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and has trained more than 80,000 coaches.

“Our work is about helping to create the conditions for kids to succeed — positive mentoring, the opportunity to develop resiliency and grit, and making the connection between hard work and success using sports,” she said.

The LA84 Foundation’s #PlayEquity initiative helps to provide access to sports regardless of family income, said Simril, who played sports in middle school and at parks.

“Those opportunities aren’t a bygone conclusion now like they were for me,” she said. “There’s been a disinvestment in school-based sports.”

Legg said that research has shown that the rising cost of youth sports is driving inequity.

“The Aspen Institute shows that families report spending an average of $700 per child, per sport,” he said. “What this means is that for families with incomes over $150,000, there’s 40% participation, and for families with incomes of less than $25,000, you have 20% participation.”

The disinvestment in youth sports goes back decades, he said.

“It started in the 1980s, with this ‘government is bad, private enterprise is better,’ so we divested from youth sports in parks and recreation and community organizations, and into that gap rushed private organizations,” he said. “Many are doing great work. However, with that you get rising costs, and travel costs.”

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