Our neighborhood elementary school is closed, just like all the rest in Michigan. But the gate to the baseball field adjacent was open on a recent afternoon, and though the rest of the sports world has gone dark as the coronavirus pandemic casts an ominous shadow over our daily lives, the sun was shining.
So there they were, my 13-year-old son and one of his buddies, with a bucket of baseballs — and a couple of adults also freed from a jam-packed weekend of youth sports — turning a would-be practice session into playtime.
My son’s a lefty, but he was manning second base, something he never gets to do for his tournament team. And as he and his pal both took turns trying to make highlight-reel plays — behind-the-back, double-play transfers and Derek Jeter-style jump throws — there was a freedom that was hard to ignore.
And a thought that was hard to shake: Isn’t this the way it’s supposed to be? The way it used to be? Before a $15 billion-plus youth sports industry laid claim to the sandlot and turned free play into a pay-to-play enterprise at a cost we’re only beginning to calculate as parents?
Those are questions many of us wrestle with on a weekly basis, if not a daily one, carpooling kids to practice after practice, with training fees piled upon league and tournament payments, and stresses we can’t see accumulating inside everyone.
But as things grind to a halt here in the U.S., I can’t help but wonder if our answers might begin to change whenever life starts moving again. Kids will be restless, but budgets will be tighter. Will our view of youth sports and the professionalized culture we’ve created be any different? Will this pause — however long it lasts — give kids a chance to hit the reset button?
“My hope is that when play resumes, we don’t just go back to the way youth sports were served up before this thing hit,” said Tom Farrey, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “I think we’re gonna develop some new habits and some new insights, as to what our kids want and need.”
What they need seems obvious to some, but not so to others. And that’s what spurred Farrey — a former investigative journalist and a father of three like myself — to author a book more than a decade ago on this subject, “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.”
In 2013, Farrey also launched Project Play, an initiative aimed at building “healthy communities through sports” that has since partnered here locally with the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan. The goals are pretty simple: giving all kids an opportunity to play sports and then giving them more reasons to stay in the game.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 8 million kids in school-sponsored sports, and five or six times that many playing in various youth programs and on club teams. But a recent report by the Aspen Institute highlights some underlying problems and troubling statistics.
The fade away
Only 38% of children (ages 6 to 12) were playing team or individual sports on a regular basis in 2018, down from 45% a decade before, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And the average kid quits after less than three years, before age 11. The primary reason: It stops being “fun” anymore.
That’s the impetus behind the “Don’t Retire, Kid” ad campaign Farrey’s group began last year. But it’s also the reality we all see each year, watching 11- and 12-year-olds get cut from travel teams and then fall out of the sport altogether rather than landing back in a rec league. Or more often, it’s a case of burnout or injury that leads to what amounts to a child’s retirement.
There’s also a price to be paid for continuing that many kids — and parents — aren’t willing, or able, to pay. On average, families spend nearly $700 per child for one sport each year, according to that same Aspen Institute survey. But any parent with a child playing travel hockey or baseball — or club soccer or volleyball — can tell you that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what they’re spending on team fees, travel, equipment and the rest.
Again, those are well-intentioned choices we're making, not our kids. There are plenty of benefits, too, as my family has discovered, having been fortunate to fall in with some terrific coaches and rational parents with our kids’ travel teams. Skill development, fitness, discipline, time-management skills, and more.
But as most of us have migrated away from the community-sport systems we grew up on — Little League baseball, rec soccer and so on — we’ve sacrificed plenty along the way. The competition we’re chasing for our kids doesn’t include many of their priced-out peers. It also chases away too many that aren’t in it for the same reasons some adults apparently are, whether it’s a college athletic scholarship, a social network — the “tourna-cation” crowd — or simply keeping up with the Joneses.
That’s not to minimize the loss people are feeling right now, including some coaches whose livelihoods in jeopardy no. My kids are crushed by their sports calendar getting completely erased, starting with my daughter’s season-opening prep soccer tournament. Our high school freshman found out 10 days ago she’d made the varsity soccer team, after months of hard work and more self-determination than I ever displayed as a kid. Less than 24 hours later, though, her coach delivered the news we knew was coming: The spring sports season may be over before it even starts.
Still, as frustrating and painful as all this is going to be for everyone, perhaps some kids will find a silver lining in terms of injury prevention and mental health.
“People are gonna miss playing sports and that’s gonna be a challenge,” Farrey said. “But at the same time, for some athletes who are 16- and 17-year-olds, it’s the first break they’ve gotten since they were 5.”
And maybe that’s what’s important now as well, absorbing the losses and trying to make some incremental gains. Maybe all those strawman arguments about the evils of “participation trophies” will quiet down as we rediscover the value of participation now that it has been forcibly taken away. Maybe there’ll be some more empathy for all those that were already feeling locked out, “through cost, ability or zip code,” as Farrey puts it. And maybe in the absence of all the structure we’ve built up, kids will learn to improvise and tap into some of the creativity that’s been drilled out of them.
Last Sunday already seems like it was months ago, but it actually was a bit refreshing not to have a soccer triple-header on our schedule, as much as we all enjoy the sport. And after the trip to the baseball field, we headed off to Kensington Metropark for a long hike, then back home where the kids staged a massive nerf gun fight in the backyard and my 9-year-old spent an hour building a garden.
It wasn’t at all what we had planned, before the color-coded Google calendar went blank. But maybe there’s a lesson to be learned in that, too, one that’ll help us more fully appreciate the role that youth sports can — or should — play in our lives while they're on hiatus.
“I think it could bring back, to some degree, free play,” Farrey said. “And I think it’ll restore some balance to family life. ... And my hope is that the great majority of parents who want a more reasoned and moderate approach to sports will come out of this with some ideas and a renewed sense of purpose."
If we don’t, I have a feeling our kids will know who to blame.