By Doug Abrams
About 35 million boys and girls — nearly half the nation’s children — play each year in at least one organized sports program conducted by a private association, or by a public agency such as the parks and recreation department. Some of these youngsters play on travel or select teams, and others play in house leagues. With these hefty numbers year after year, youth sports holds greater potential for influencing the next generation than any other activity outside the home and the schools.
Many communities, however, squander much of this potential by perpetuating youth sports systems that deny children equal opportunity to play. The term “youth sports system” refers to the totality of organized private and public sports programs available to boys and girls in a community and its environs.
Inequitable youth sports systems begin weeding out children as young as seven, and they lead most children to quit playing altogether by their early teen years. Too many communities over-emphasize travel and select teams that cut elementary schoolers before they can develop their talents; the system then lavishes practice and game time on travel and select teams while pleading a shortage of available facilities to justify constricted house leagues or avoidable waiting lists that close the door to many children who seek to play.
Americans regularly tell pollsters that playing sports enhances children’s physical fitness while teaching life skills, but many communities also tolerate inequitable youth sports systems that produce bumper crops of young athletic dropouts year after year. These systems fail young people because sports can do nothing for a child who has quit playing.
This three-part column presents a blueprint for achieving equal opportunity in community youth sports systems. This Part I discusses the “power of the permit,” the recognized authority of government agencies to manage public property. Next week, Part II (“The Child Impact Statement”) will discuss how two agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department — may use 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. In two weeks, Part III will discuss the stiff resistance that proposals for equitable allocation of public youth sports facilities may arouse.
Equal Opportunity in Youth Sports
Equity begins with acknowledgment that travel teams, select teams and house leagues each enrich children’s lives. I played ice hockey at all three levels when I was growing up on Long Island in the late 1960s, and each of my teams made me a better person and athlete. As a coach of travel, select and house-league hockey teams for more than 40 years, I saw play at each level promote positive youth development.
I would not want any of the three levels to eclipse the others because equal opportunity in youth sports means enabling each player, to the extent possible, to compete against players of similar ability. Players with five years’ experience, for example, would be better off not competing against beginners, and beginners would be better off not competing against seasoned veterans. Experienced players may become bored, beginners may become intimidated or embarrassed before quitting, and wide disparities of talent invite injury, particularly in contact or collision sports.
But equal opportunity also means viewing the community youth sports system as a pyramid. The strongest part of a pyramid is at the middle and base, not the top. Select teams enable the relatively few players at the top, particularly older pre-teens and teenagers, to compete at their own general ability level once they have shown commitment to the game. For most of these players, select teams and high school varsity teams provide the last chances to pursue excellence in organized sports.
Most young athletes, however, are not select-level players. In communities with an abundance of players, the select ranks cannot realistically include more than about 20% of the boys and girls who compete in a particular sport. A community fails its children unless its youth sports system offers meaningful participation to the remaining 80% of interested youngsters lower on the pyramid, including the least experienced youngsters at or near the base.
The “Power of the Permit”
Equitable youth sports systems depend on two public agencies — the school district and the parks and recreation department, which together manage nearly all local youth sports venues. Most private youth sports programs do not own their own fields, gymnasiums, or other facilities; the district or the department grants these programs permits to use public facilities. Permits often come at favorable rates or even free, on the rationale that the private program performs a public service by conducting a wholesome youth activity.
Many school districts and parks departments act as little more than real estate agents, assigning scarce field and gymnasium time to private programs that under-serve children at the middle and base of the community’s youth sports pyramid. The real-estate-agent approach may seem like the path of least resistance because school districts do not conduct sports programs unrelated to interscholastic athletics, and understaffed parks departments may not feel equipped to conduct their own sports programs.
When these two agencies ignore what happens after they grant permits for public facilities, however, the meaningful access of most children to organized sports depends on the goodwill of private programs that remain essentially unaccountable to public scrutiny. Most private sports programs are conducted by adults who know that they will participate for only a few years while their own children play, and these short-termers might not care whether the community youth sports system serves all children, from the base of the pyramid to the top.
To help ensure equitable community youth sports systems, school districts and parks departments need to craft equity when they exercise the “power of the permit.” This is the power, firmly established in the law, to determine whether and under what regulations a private individual or entity may use a public facility. Government agencies have long held discretionary authority to grant or deny permits regulating private use of public property that charters, statutes, or ordinances commit to agency management.
Next week’s column will describe how, exercising the power of the permit before each sports season begins, the school district and the parks department can collaborate to assign public fields, gymnasiums and other sports facilities in a way that helps assure access to all children who wish to play.
[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.)]