The Crisis of Youth Sports
Poor kids are less active than rich ones. That's a bigger problem than it seems.
We know extreme inequality is among the most disruptive and corrosive forces in any society; that it fuels polarization, extremism, and violence, and that it weakens democracies and democratic norms. And yet in the US, we seem dead set on widening existing gaps, in ways large and small.
One seemingly small way we’re setting up a far less equal future: Youth sports.
I realize how silly that sounds. But this New York Times piece, which is well worth a read, lays out all of the ways in which sports are increasingly reserved for the wealthy, while the poor are shut out. And that has long-term consequences, for everything from stress management to socialization to college admissions to physical wellbeing to incarceration to life expectancy.
I grew up in Seattle, among the sportier cities in the United States, and as a kid I played a lot of them: Soccer, basketball, and softball; I was on the swim team and the gymnastics team and the flag team (the dorkiest of the girls-in-skirts teams); I took horseback riding lessons and figure skating lessons and ski and snowboarding lessons; my family went on pretty regular hikes and long bike rides. And while we were solidly middle-class, we were very far from rich. Some of these lessons weren’t cheap, but most of the team sports were (and the ones at school were free). The kids I was playing with? It wasn’t a bunch of rich kids, but rather a pretty solid cross-section of the economically diverse community in which I grew up.
For the record, I wasn’t any good at any of the sports I played. I never made a varsity squad; I was never on an elite competitive anything team; and while I was pretty competitive when it came to academics, I was so absolutely terrible at sports that I never bothered to try particularly hard. I was never even “most improved.” I was just bad.
But I’m still so, so glad I played.
Playing sports makes physical activity a norm. As a girl, it imparted the idea that my body does things other than just appear a certain way. Even a terribly unathletic kid like me had moments of feeling fast and powerful. Team sports helped to forge important bonds between players, and taught all kinds of skills — cooperation, sportsmanship, dignified losing — that I didn’t get elsewhere in my schooling. And while as an adult I am not joining any rec league soccer teams and while I wish I had more time for exercise, physical activity remains a pretty well-integrated part of my life, partly because in the years after high school, I spent time trying out a bunch of different things and found one (yoga) that I loved and that felt sustainable. I did that because, for me, physical activity was a normal and expected part of life — even if I was among the least sporty people in my immediate family, my high school, and my broader community.
I am still not someone who you would see and say, “wow, she’s fit.” I imagine it comes as a surprise to no one who has met me in person when I say that I have sucked at sports my entire life and that I still can barely run a 10-minute mile. But also: I like to move my body, and I understand — not just intellectually, but viscerally, in my bones and my muscle memory — how important it is to move. Movement remains the best treatment I have found for stress, depression, and chronic pain. Without a regular physical movement practice, I have no doubt that I would be far less happy, far less healthy, and far less socially adept.
It’s not just that we are denying low-income kids the chance to build healthy life-long habits. It’s that we are consigning many of them to shorter, less healthy, poorer lives.
From the Times:
Data from multiple sources reveal a significant gap in sports participation by income level. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 70 percent of children from families with incomes above about $105,000 — four times the poverty line — participated in sports in 2020. But participation was around 51 percent for families in a middle-income range, and just 31 percent for families at or below the poverty line.
A 2021 study of Seattle-area students from fifth grade through high school found that less affluent youth were less likely to participate in sports than their more affluent peers. The study also found that middle schoolers from more affluent families were three times as likely to meet physical exercise guidelines as less affluent students.
Why? For one, schools are cutting physical education and sports — there just isn’t enough money, especially in low-income school districts. At the same time, elite youth sports have blown up; without school-sponsored options, wealthy parents can pay for private teams, and with ever-more-competitive college admissions processes, wealthy parents are also enrolling their kids in boutique sports that may give them admissions edge. Add on to that the ubiquity of smartphones, even among low-income young people, and the time gap between rich parents and poor ones — that is, the fact that wealthier parents often have a greater ability to spend quality, enriching time with their kids, while poorer parents are more likely to be cobbling together multiple jobs to pay for the basics — and you have a recipe for active, fit rich kids and much more sedentary, less-healthy poor ones. Which is in turn a recipe for those rich kids to grow into healthier, wealthier adults with better stress-management techniques and who live longer lives, and the poor kids to grow into adults who see their poverty compounded by health problems, see their health problems compounded by stress and lack of physical fitness, and their lives end sooner.
That’s overly-simplistic, obviously, and all the youth sports in the world won’t fix the many layers of state-sponsored deprivation that drive inequality in America. But even the more nuanced reality of this single, small issue is pretty bleak.
We know that physical wellbeing and fitness are already class-stratified, and that people with larger bodies who are perceived as being un-fit often face discrimination in the workforce and in healthcare. We know that physical fitness is crucial to a healthy life, and that movement staves off a host of diseases. And we know that physical movement can do incredible things for mental health and stress, something poor kids no doubt carry even at young ages.
We also know that health outcomes in America are radically unequal along lines of both race and class, in large part because of policy: conservative policies largely mean lower life expectancies and poorer health outcomes, while more liberal policies help people to live longer, better lives. The divestment from public school “extras” like sports and the arts only threaten to magnify the harms of conservative policies that have already make so many Americans’ lives so unnecessarily difficult.
Despite everything we know about inequality, many of America’s most powerful seem committed to building a permanent underclass — people who are poorer, who die younger, who suffer more. Sure, youth sports are just youth sports. But they’re also a microcosm of so much more.