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Study: No one is asking Baltimore youth what sports they want to play

Aspen Institute’s Project Play hopes to build national model for improving access to sports in ‘have-not America’

Recreation officials in the heart of East Baltimore rarely seek advice from the young people they serve before deciding what activities to offer, a major flaw that is typical of low-income communities nationally and contributes to the large majority of youth who do not get enough physical activity.

That’s one of the conclusions from a new study by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, a nonprofit working to make sports more accessible to youth. It examined recreation programs in a hardscrabble section of Baltimore in search of ways to improve sports offerings nationally.

The study found that programs are often too strapped for money and the volunteers to do the research necessary to tailor their programs to local desires. Consequently, many youths in a part of the city celebrated for producing professional basketball stars such as Sam Cassell, Reggie Williams and Angel McCoughtry find themselves on the sidelines.

The detailed look at East Baltimore is being released Wednesday at Project Play’s third annual conference, which brings together recreation leaders, business leaders, and athletes to brainstorm on ways to make sports accessible to youth, regardless of where they live or how athletic they are. Its principal author said the problems it uncovered beset struggling communities everywhere.

“This part of Baltimore is typical of have-not America,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “It is typical of communities that lack the resources to support sports programming.”

The report examined a part of Baltimore hit hard by the scourges of racial and economic segregation and violent crime. The area has pockets of redevelopment that are attracting middle-class residents of all races and is home to the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital. But just blocks away are impoverished black neighborhoods scarred by hundreds of abandoned and dilapidated row homes and frequent shootings.

These are areas where recreation programs are the most needed, but often most limited. A survey of East Baltimore youth done for the Aspen study found that the sport young people in the neighborhood most wanted to try is swimming. Yet, the two-square-mile section only had five pools. Similarly, gymnastics was the sport that girls wanted to try more than any other, and yet the area has only one gymnastics program.

Overall, the report said, just one in four boys and one in six girls in Baltimore get the government-recommended minimum of one hour a day of physical activity. Some 18 percent of boys and 29 percent of girls were completely sedentary in the week before being surveyed, the report said. The inactivity contributes to high rates of obesity, chronic health problems, and the prospect of shorter life spans.

The report noted that Baltimore spends about $30 million a year on its recreation and parks department — about the same as it did in the 1980s. Since then, two-thirds of the city’s 130 recreation centers have closed.

Baltimore officials in the past said that the centers closed through the years were under-equipped and underused. But in the wake of the 2015 riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the city is ramping up its recreation programs in an effort to create healthy alternatives to the street life.

Virtually every home in Baltimore is within a half-mile of a park, the report said. In the study area alone, there are 14 parks and 19 outdoor basketball courts. But many are in poor shape or unsafe because of the criminal element that hangs around them.

Some of the best facilities in the area are kept off-limits much of the time, mainly to prevent vandalism. The legendary Dome, a covered outdoor basketball court with bleachers and fiberglass backboards, and other facilities are open mainly for leagues, tournaments and other organized games. Similarly, the gates leading to an elementary school playground rebuilt several years ago with $100,000 and construction help from the Baltimore Ravens are often locked during non-school hours, the report said.

Another reason the gyms and other recreational facilities in the area are underused is because neighborhood recreation groups do not enter into the formal agreements with the school system necessary for gaining access.

The challenges go beyond a lack of facilities, though. The study found that the city needs more youth coaches, and the ones it has are often undertrained. They know little about how to pass along technical skills, or even how to provide first aid to players hurt in games or practice.

Farrey, a former ESPN reporter, said Aspen plans to use the study as the starting point for a plan to improve youth sports in the city. Among its recommendations is for local recreation programs to partner with local universities and national organizations, such as USA Swimming or USA Basketball, to hold clinics, expose youth to sports they are unfamiliar with, and provide coaches. It also calls for creating a comprehensive online listing to make it easier to find out what options are available.

Project Play officials said they have set up meetings with city officials to discuss the findings as a first step toward implementing its ideas.

“East Baltimore is an area that has produced a lot of really good basketball players,” Farrey said. “But our program is looking at sport and how available it is despite ability and ZIP code. If people are given access to it, sports can changes lives.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.