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In the era of COVID-19, access to youth sports hangs in the balance

The head of a sports nonprofit says the pandemic’s fallout could further penalize kids already hurt by school budget cuts

Though COVID-19 continues to cost people their lives and livelihoods, states around the country are starting to reopen businesses and relax restrictions on public gatherings in an attempt to return to “normal.”

Questions about the return of organized sports are among the most central to what our new normal will look like. And questions about the return of youth sports feel particularly urgent. What’s safe, what’s doable and, significantly, is the coronavirus pandemic a chance to level playing fields for children from communities and families that lack the resources and access to participate in sports? Or is this a moment when we let the disparities in youth sports grow even wider?

These questions have implications not only for the health and well-being of kids around the nation, but also for the professional leagues that rely on a steady pipeline of young athletic talent in a time where the talent pool is shrinking. While 45% of youngsters 6 to 12 regularly played team or individual sports in 2008, that number had fallen to 38% by 2018, according to a study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Much of that decline has to do with access, said Bethany Rubin Henderson, president of the nonprofit youth sports development program America Scores. DC Scores, also headed by Henderson, is one of the group’s 12 affiliates in the U.S. and Canada, offering creative writing, community service and soccer.

Bethany Rubin Henderson is president of the nonprofit youth sports development program America Scores.

DC Scores

Budget cutbacks have meant fewer school-based sports post-coronavirus, “I worry that the equity gap in sports will grow wider because parents who can still afford the pay-to-play model will, of course, have their children playing,” said Henderson. But that’s not an option for the children her organization serves. With the economic fallout from the coronavirus, “I worry that gets dramatically exacerbated.”

Henderson spoke with The Undefeated about what the post-pandemic future of youth sports might look like, and what steps need to be taken to make it brighter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did youth sports look like before the coronavirus? Why were there so many disparities in access and participation?

So there’s 30 to 40 years of history as to the context for what was happening before. One of those is athletics and recess have been cut out of school budgets in the name of testing, in the name of academics. While the attention to more academics is good, the effect has been a real reduction in access to sports. This is true in the U.S. across all different communities that we work in, and many other communities as well.

“What we were seeing is a real dichotomy in sports across the economic equity divide. … The ability of parents in our inner cities to do that, even if they can afford it, is very limited.” — Bethany Rubin Henderson

I’m based out of D.C., and there’s only a handful of high schools that even offer girls soccer teams today. Think about the kid who only has access via whatever happens to be available in their school or community centers. They haven’t had the opportunity to put in the time to compete for those spots, even on the school teams.

What we were seeing is a real dichotomy in sports across the economic equity divide. There are kids whose families can afford to pay the price of travel team, whatever the sport. While some of the pay-to-play fees are terrifically expensive, some are not. Some are at a local community center, but you still have to be able to get your kid to that. You still have to be able to equip your kid. Even if they’re playing, at the most, rec level, they need a ball, they need cleats, they need equipment for their sport. The ability of parents in our inner cities to do that, even if they can afford it, is very limited.

They also have to have a clear schedule that’s planned more than a week in advance because they are shift workers and their schedules aren’t set that far in advance. They don’t have that control to take the time off, to leave work early, or to get their kid those new shoes they need every six months because their feet are growing.

So there’s just a huge, huge, huge divide that is exacerbated by sports moving entirely out of the school/community center environment and into that pay-to-play world environment.

How was your organization helping to close that divide?

We’re a 100% free program. There’s a lot of organizations like ours out there and they are clearly growing in response to something. There’s a need that’s being met.

Our goal at DC Scores, at America Scores, is to help kids in need develop the skills and confidence to succeed on the playing field, and in the classroom, and in life. To become physically active athletes, engaged students and engaged citizens.

Every child who joins a DC Scores, America Scores soccer team also writes and performs original poetry with that same soccer team and designs and carries out service projects with that same soccer team. Kids who fancy themselves writers or artists but not athletes, find themselves on the soccer field and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can do this, too.’ And kids who think of themselves only as a jock and no good at school, just find themselves on the poetry stage performing original works to thousands of people.

Most of the kids that we work with, they’re not going to be soccer stars, and that’s OK. But if their only option is some sort of a pay-to-play, those are all training soccer stars. There’s a lot of data on the number of kids that drop out of sports by middle school. It’s basically because it’s not fun. If sports aren’t fun, why are you doing them? Especially if you’re a kid. There’s a lot of consequences of sports not being fun for kids.

Can you pinpoint the racial and cultural fault lines that help fuel this divide and have changed the complexion of youth sports?

I do know if you look at the trends of how upper- and middle-class families treat their kids and the way parenting has changed — pay-to-play sports that allow you to really hone your skills and deep dive from an early age — fit right within that process. The thing you get with pay-to-play that you can’t get with an organization like mine, is you get really specialized, highly experienced coaches in that particular sport.

It’s to give your kid that leg up, that resume edge. I think there are a lot of great programs out there and I think there’s a place for that experience. But the consequence of that rise means there are kids who can afford to participate and kids who can’t.

We’ve got schools in our program that don’t have any fields. They just do it all in the gym. The vast majority of children we work with are African American. I’m not going to go into this horrible centurylong legacy of why it is that way, but there’s a higher concentration of black children in these higher poverty communities. There are black children that have access to wealth, but if you look at the communities we work in, they’re black and Latino and maybe a few other minority communities. Rural poverty is a little bit different, but there’s also a different concept of sports and access to fields and things like that than you have in an inner city.

What primarily drives the divide is the combination of economics and geography and expectations. My own children get sent home from their public school in Virginia every week and it’s like, ‘Here’s another sport you can play. Come try out.’ That is not what happens in the schools I work in.

With some states already easing social distancing restrictions, when do you think youth sports will be up and running again?

I don’t have a crystal ball. I think different sports will come back at different times, and I think there will be a lot of drivers that will impact that aren’t completely about the child. Sports is an industry in our country. Youth sports organizations are an industry in our country.

There’s a lot of thought that’s already been put into how do we make participating in sports safe for kids in a COVID-19 world, whether that be individual water bottles or keeping people 6 feet apart. All of which I think is good but a lot of which I think is not superpractical when you’re talking about young kids. I think we’ll continue in some sort of hybridized world for a while.

“I’d like to see us putting sports back in the schools. Making it part of what we all do together, part of our expectations for kids as they grow up, and having opportunities as they grow for all kids, I think would be a huge win.” — Bethany Rubin Henderson

One thing we’re talking about in America Scores is what kind of hybrid curriculum can we run. Let’s assume we can’t have all 30 kids on our team in a room together or on a field together. We can only have 10 of them at a time, or we can only have them one day a week. We don’t expect to be able to return to our five-days-a-week, in-person, entire team together, traditional experience anytime soon.

We have a curriculum that aligns with national standards that drive all of our programs. We train all of our coaches in it. Almost all of our coaches [all of whom are paid] are schoolteachers, are school staff, doing second shifts with us. They can be like, ‘Hey, did you do your homework? How’s your mom? Did you get breakfast today?’ So that holistic concept remains at the core of what we’re trying to do in this new post-COVID-19 world. We have an entire virtual curriculum [in Spanish and English] that is connected to our traditional programming. We have put it up in such a way that a kid can pull it down and do it on their own. Our coaches can work with their teams, depending on what their kids need that day. What we’re trying to do is emulate that as much as possible in a virtual world for kids who are seriously negatively impacted by the digital divide.

People keep asking when will sports return. I don’t think sports has actually gone away. They’re just being experienced very differently right now. My niece is in travel soccer. She’s 8, 9 years old. They do once-a-week workouts, and you’ve probably seen this on social media. Other kids are doing it where everybody gets on Facebook Live. The league play has gone away for the moment, the games which are really fun for a lot of kids and part of what drives them to play in a lot of ways, for the moment. The question is when will formal, in-person sports return.

What needs to change post-COVID-19 to make sports more accessible to children across these racial and economic divides?

Organizations like mine, which already have more demand than we can satisfy, will have even more demand. So we won’t be able to grow fast enough to meet demand, especially in a bad economy, since we’re reliant on philanthropic dollars to operate.

I’d like to see us putting sports back in the schools. Making it part of what we all do together, part of our expectations for kids as they grow up, and having opportunities as they grow for all kids, I think would be a huge win.

The value proposition is clear. Kids who play sports do better in school. Kids who play sports are physically healthier. Kids who play sports are mentally healthier. This has been demonstrated by many, many researchers over many, many, many years.

The problem is the political environment that we operate in. This concept of sports as something that’s nice to have. This concept comes from the fact that the people who are making these major policy decisions are not people who have to struggle with one or the other. Their children often have access to both.

The problem is school budgets. So when you look at spending a dollar on a textbook or spending a dollar on a teacher’s aide, am I spending a dollar on school sports? We’ve got to make our trade-offs. I think that concept of the ‘nice to have’ versus the lasting impact, that value proposition, for whatever reason, has not taken root in this country.

What are the long-term dangers for spectator sports and professional leagues if disparities continue or, more likely, deepen because of the coronavirus?

If you look at just the soccer space, there’s a lot of talk in the soccer world about why a U.S. men’s national team did not make the last World Cup and what to do about that. Part of the conversation is we’re not drawing athletes from a diverse enough base of soccer in this country. Has soccer in this country become too much of a suburban, wealthy kid’s sport? I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that is certainly the type of challenge that we can see if an access gap continues.

Since we see this divide worsening because of the pandemic, do you have any sense that there will be some creativity that will rise to meet the moment?

I’m a social entrepreneur by trade, so that’s how I think about things. There will always be innovators who rise to meet the divide, and I am optimistic about that. I think we’ll see all sorts of interesting ways to engage kids more equitably and more successfully. What I worry about is whether those innovations will be able to scale and how long it will take for them to scale, or whether we’ll lose a generation of kids in the meantime.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.