This column is in three parts. Last week, Part I discussed the “power of the permit,” the recognized authority of government agencies to manage public property. Part II now discusses how two agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department — may exercise this power to allocate fields, gymnasiums and other public property to private youth sports programs in a way that serves all children who wish to play. Next week, Part III will discuss the stiff resistance that proposals for equitable allocation of public youth sports facilities may arouse.
The “Child Impact Statement”
Working together, the school district and the parks department should require a “child impact statement” annually from each private sports program that applies to use public facilities. The statement is akin to an “environmental impact statement,” the disclosure document required before federal agencies decide whether to grant permits for activity by private entities that would significantly affect the quality of the environment.
The child impact statement would significantly affect the quality of a child’s environment by disclosing the number of boys and girls the applicant program enrolled last season, and the percentages of time in public facilities the program allotted to travel teams, select teams and house leagues. Most important, the statement would also disclose the program’s commitment for allocating public facilities among these three levels of play this season. Fulfilling the commitment would be a condition for renewing the permit next season.
With child impact statements in hand, school and parks officials can draft a community-wide master plan, based on facility availability and the number of children likely to enroll in all private sports programs that have applied to use public property. Without micro-managing the daily operations of these programs, the officials can allocate available public facilities in a way that provides meaningful opportunities for all boys and girls who wish to play.
What Equal Opportunity Means in Youth Sports
As schools and parks officials develop the master plan that allocates use of public sports facilities, they must pay particular attention to house leagues, which can be the first to suffer in unregulated community youth sports systems. To encourage broad participation by children seeking to play, the community-wide master plan must ensure house leagues equitable use of public facilities during convenient hours. In many communities these days, priority may work the other way, with first choice going to travel or select teams, or to programs that favor travel or select teams and constrict their house leagues. Open-enrollment house leagues are left to settle for whatever facilities and inconvenient time slots remain, which may amount to very little.
Allocating travel or select teams a modestly greater amount of facility use than house leagues, however, may actually enable the community’s youth sports system to enhance access for families at all income levels. House leagues may offer attractive alternatives to the four- and five-figure costs, extensive travel, and heavy practice and game schedules characteristic of many travel or select teams. Even some families that can afford higher costs balk at these burdens that membership on travel or select teams may impose on family life. House leagues may enroll these families that might otherwise drop out, but lower costs and less burdensome schedules may also mean modestly less facility use throughout the season, particularly where the school district or parks department charges private programs user fees.
The key word here is “modestly” because house leagues provide little or no opportunity for children who get only minimal game schedules and practice time, for wait-listed children, or for children shut out altogether by the voracious appetites of select teams. Eyebrows were raised in a Minneapolis suburb a few years ago, for example, when about two hundred 9- and 10-year-olds signed up for the local youth basketball program conducted by a private association that held permits for all the available gymnasiums operated by the public schools and the parks and recreation department. About 30 of these youngsters made select teams, and the remaining 170 or so were placed in the house leagues. During the season, each select team received about 130 hours of court time (two or three practices each week, plus three or four games every weekend), but each house league team received only about 12 hours of court time.
Some parents felt that the suburb’s youth sports system was out of kilter when less than 20 percent of its 9- and 10-year-old basketball players would get more than 1,000 percent more court time than the remaining 80 percent of players. And when school and parks department officials asserted they were powerless to correct the imbalance because the youth basketball program was a private organization.
These parents founded “Keep’em All Playing,” a citizens’ alliance that seeks greater accountability from the schools and the parks department. The alliance advances the core principle that the “power of the permit” authorizes these agencies to correct imbalances in public use that amount to more than 1,000 percent. The power is well-grounded in law because, as last week’s column discussed, authority to regulate private use of public facilities rests with the appropriate public agency and not with the private users.
Next week’s column will conclude this trilogy by describing how community efforts to craft an equitable youth sports system can pit parent against parent. Even in a nation that values general notions of equality, proponents of equal opportunity in youth sports can face stiff resistance.
[Source: Douglas E. Abrams, Achieving Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports: Roles for the “Power of the Permit” and the “Child Impact Statement,” in Learning Culture Through Sports: Perspectives on Society and Organized Sports (Sandra Spickard Prettyman & Brian Lampman eds., 2d ed. 2011). Published by Rowman & Littlefield. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. (This book consists of 21 informative essays on important issues in American sports and culture.)]