We flipped the page on the calendar to August this week. That means school starts again in a month, and practice for fall sports will begin in just a matter or weeks.
For kids who play sports, and especially soccer, this has been a summer to remember. The U.S. Women’s National Team not only secured a victory, its players have raised the bar on speaking out against social injustices, proving themselves as leaders off the field, and charting a course toward equal pay and civil rights, especially for the LGBTQ community.
Those goals have provided proper discussions. But there is more to be said.
Team captain Alex Morgan knows about goals and how to achieve them. The star forward raised concerns that the youth soccer model in the United States is broken. “The fact that we’ve made youth soccer in the U.S. more of a business than a grassroots sport is, I think, detrimental to the growth of the sport in the United States,” she said.
She has been vocal on the subject on recent weeks. And it’s an important message for all of us to hear — and consider.
Morgan, and others, say the issue goes far beyond soccer. They argue that the current direction of youth sports is unhealthy for kids and doesn’t serve their best interests.
It seems to come down to class.
America needs a national debate about the direction of youth sports. The problem isn’t with today’s kids. It’s with the adults who have turned youth sports into a $17 billion industry that targets the wealthiest families at the expense of middle- and low-income families.
Morgan suggests that the days when kids changed sports with the seasons and practiced their skills in pick-up games at local parks and schools are gone. The world of youth sports is a pay-to-play machine that exists primarily for the club sports organizers and coaches who rake in the profits.
The facts back that up.
According to a survey conducted earlier this year by The Harris Poll, one in four families with children playing youth sports spends $500 or more a month on their kid’s athletics, and one in 10 spends more than $1,000 a month. In order to pay for their child’s sports expenses, 36% of parents are taking fewer vacations and 19% are working a second job.
That kind of money feels like an investment. But the reality is far more real. We see this here in Vermont, where very few student-athletes go on to be elite athletes. We do not have the population base, or easy access to year-round training and conditioning for high-profile sports.
In turn, parents are falsely led to believe that their investment will pay off in the form of an athletic scholarship that will substantially reduce — or eliminate altogether — their college tuition expenses.
Nationally, only about 2% of high school athletes win sports scholarships at NCAA colleges and universities. The great majority of those scholarships are split with other team members and don’t come close to covering the costs of tuition and room and board.
The price is far higher, actually. It is affecting sports in general.
Take soccer as an example.
Participation in youth soccer is dropping at an alarming rate. A 2018 Sports and Fitness Industry survey found that the percentage of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer fell nearly 14% over the past three years.
The drop-off in participation isn’t only in soccer. As recently as 2008, almost 45% of children ages 6 to 12 regularly played a team sport. Now only 37% do.
The rise in club sports, which has been gaining in popularity around Vermont, has also negatively impacted high school sports programs.
Again sticking with soccer, a study by the RAND Corporation and the Women’s Sports Foundation reported that 24% of high schools no longer offer sports. The survey, released last month, also showed that 63% of school sports budgets are either decreasing or stagnant. High school sports are offered free to students — contrast that with the pay-to-play demands of club sports, which effectively shuts out a significant portion of the youth populace.
Meanwhile, the health of American children continues to deteriorate at alarming rates. The percentage of U.S. children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. Nearly 1 in 5 youth 6 to 19 years old in the United States is considered obese.
Here in Vermont, the obesity rate of high school students is 12.6%. Among all students, ages 10-17, the rate increases slightly to 13%.
Vermont is a small-enough community that we can effect change, probably on a national level. Now is the time to be thinking about a revolution in youth sports. We can shift the focus to participation and the best interests of children first, and put the spirit of “sport” back into sportsmanship — not money.