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Can't Pay? Can't Play?

by Nicole Wilkes

Photo Courtesy of Pexels

Youth sports have become a fundamental aspect of American culture, and for good reason. It improves overall fitness, teaches teamwork and nurtures healthy competition, among many other benefits. Why is it, then, that when we faced with fiscal challenges, youth athletics are so often the first to go?

According to a 2015 study conducted by Up2Us Sports, about 27 percent of America’s public high schools will have no sports programs or teams by the year 2020. Many school boards have dwindling budgets while some are even dealing with massive deficits. Tragically, the communities that will be forced to eliminate youth sports as a result of financial inability are the ones that need them the most. In a 2015 study of Massachusetts’s high schools, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association found that the level of sports participation in the state’s 10 poorest communities was 43 percent lower than the statewide average. The direct correlation between the availability of sports programs and income is evident.

“These cuts disproportionately affect low-income, inner city neighborhoods,” said Margaret Michaels of Equality Indicators, “because participation in sports increasingly follows a pay-to play model.”

This pay-to-play model, which is a popular response to budget cuts, relieves schools of the financial responsibility of maintaining sports leagues and places it on the families the athletes. A nationwide poll conducted by University of Michigan concluded that the average reported cost of middle and high school sports was $381, which included pay-to-play dues, uniforms, equipment and other expenses. Needless to say, there are countless American families that for whom, that price is an unbreakable barrier.

Those who are financially shut out of youth sports are often children of low-income communities who are described as “at risk.” These underprivileged youths are forced to go out every day into a world where engaging in crime and gang activity can be the most attractive means of supporting themselves and their families. Additionally, many of these youths are told again and again that college is not an option for them—that school is not worth it. When they give in to this lifestyle and see no alternative, the community as a whole suffers the consequences. Rising rates of crime, teen pregnancy, school absenteeism and violence are incredibly expensive; the community is forced to pick up this tab.

Although Americans are aware of the benefits that youth sports offer, we need to recognize the exceptional benefits that sports offer for the less fortunate. Sports provide exactly what at-risk youth need: a sense of community and support. There is nothing that can compare to the feeling of being surrounded by peers and role models that respect you and believe in what you can do.

A recent Up2U Sports report shows that student athletes are up to 50 percent less likely to be absent from school and generally have fewer discipline referrals. They also receive test scores that are as much as 40 percent higher than their peers that do not participate in sports and are four times more likely to attend college. In the summer of 2013, the city of Phoenix, Arizona invested in keeping basketball courts and other recreation facilities open late into the night. The result was that calls made to police reporting juvenile crime dropped by 55 percent. This statistic is evidence of the motivation, ambition and dedication that sports instill in at-risk youth. Athletics are not a waste of money as sports enrich and even save lives.

An organization that grasps the notion of enriching lives is Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership, a non-profit organization that reaches out to Harlem students through lacrosse. The organization uses lacrosse as a “carrot” to motivate kids to stay in school and work towards a bright future. Participants of this program show steady average GPA increases of five to ten points each year. One student, 14-year-old Jordany Baltazar, credits Harlem Lacrosse for keeping him in school.

“If it wasn’t for Harlem Lacrosse, I would have been on the streets. I would probably have been in a gang,” said Jordany.

Coaches Across America is another organization focused on supporting sports in low-income communities. CAA trains mentors to coach youth and guide them to make responsible, healthy decisions. So far, the coaches trained by CAA have served approximately 300,000 children across the nation. Whenever $1 is donated to CAA, $13 is returned to society through savings in school absenteeism, crime costs and health care.

However, it is not that simple. Sports are not a single, magic cure for the issues facing our inner-city communities. However, the undeniable truth is that they can have a colossal effect of the lives of at-risk youth. Yes, sports programs cost money. What America’s decision-makers need to understand is that, be that as it may, cutting sports is a shortcut solution that will have detrimental effects on the community in the long run. Youth sports programs are worth the money it costs to sustain them.

America does not have to allow our inner cities to be deprived of sports programs that are so indescribably essential. Included below is a list of just some of the non-profit organizations dedicated to ensuring that inner city youth are given the same athletic opportunities as their more fortunate counterparts. Sports make a difference; do not let our inner-city children get shut out.

Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership-


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