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Watts: Youth Sports

Seasons have a way of stirring certain feelings. And for me, Fall is about long green fields and the white flash of a soccer ball, thumping the ball forward amid cheers and shouts, moving to the open spaces.

In my Vermont grade school, everybody played soccer at recess. The First graders and the 8th graders ran around the field together, choosing teams that were somewhat equal, mixing big and little kids for the sheer joy of rushing down the field in the crisp afternoon air. Even today, the memory remains vivid.

But fast forward to today and fewer kids are active in sports and recreation.

Participation is down nationally by more than ten percent. And while sports used to be a great equalizer, studies now show they’re increasingly limited to kids from higher socio-economic backgrounds. It’s estimated that two-thirds of kids from households with incomes above the one hundred thousand dollar level play youth sports, while in families earning below the twenty five thousand dollar level, only about one-third do.

And many kids now focus on just one sport, year round. They hone their skills in club sports or travel clubs where team membership can cost hundreds of dollars a season, and is dependent on the ability of parents to drive long hours on nights and weekends. Plus, the growth of club sports has undercut established community sports from little league to town recreation programs, privileging those who can pay over those who can’t.

In Vermont, participation in sports remains high overall – with roughly half our high-school students playing one of 28 sports. Cross country programs, where everyone participates, abound. And new sports are developing, like Ultimate Frisbee, with more than 70 kids on a Montpelier team.

But some kids are still left out: those who can’t stay after school for daily practice or those who have jobs or responsibilities at home. And instead of investing in sports where everyone can play, some schools rely too heavily on teams with punishing schedules, limited rosters and demands that reduce participation. Even a cut in the bus schedule can separate kids who can afford to pay from those who can’t.

Youth sports should be about having fun and inspiring lifelong participation – not economics. The joy of rushing down a green field as the afternoon shadows grow longer should be something every one of our children gets to experience.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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