We mostly don’t think of sports as a public thing. Except for Green Bay (Go Packers!), the teams we usually root for are privately owned by millionaires who hire and trade millionaire players; increasingly we can watch our teams on subscriber-only channels, where the logos of advertisers are visible during every pitch and play. Even the seventh inning stretch has sponsors.

But youth sports—middle, junior high, high school—has for many decades been different.

Sure, there’s been commercialization of youth sports for some time, with everything from fundraising drives to sponsorships to add to the athletics budget. But what’s taking place now is a troubling privatization creeping in, and this has an impact even on the schools–and their students–that have not been sports powerhouses whose competitions appear on television.

A recent article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times points to a distressing fact: “Across the country, poor children and adolescents are participating far less in sports and fitness activities than more affluent youngsters are.” Richtel calls it the physical divide, a reference to the once-widening “digital divide” that has fortunately narrowed significantly.

The article cites a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found that while 70 percent of the children of wealthier families participated in sports in 2020, that figure was around 51 percent for the children from middle-income families, and 31 percent for families at or below the poverty line.

An Aspen Institute study of physical activity in general reported similar results. Among children from families making less than $25,000 a year, participation in a healthy level of activity fell from 34.1 percent in 2013 to 26.6 percent in 2021. For children from families with $25,000 to $50,000 in income, the drop was smaller: from 38.1 percent to 35.7 percent. For children in the higher income bracket—above $100,000—participation rose to 46 percent from 43.9 percent.

“What’s happened as sports has become privatized is that it has become the haves and have-nots,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director for the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program.

Budget-strapped schools cut programs and trimmed staff. At the same time schools were defunding athletics and physical education, a private youth sports industry was ballooning—from $3.5 billion in market revenue in 2010 to $28 billion in 2021, aided by the growth in technology that facilitated things like registration, marketing, scheduling, and organizing tournaments. So, while access to physical activities for young people in struggling public schools was declining, opportunities for those who could afford it was rapidly increasing.

We really should be thinking about school sports and physical education as an essential public good. It keeps us healthy (a good thing that we all benefit from when each of us is healthy); it teaches us the right kind of competition, the kind that includes collaboration and teamwork (literally); and it instills cultural expectations (and aspirations) of good sportsmanship (aka being a good winner and a responsible loser, i.e., not the current GOP).

This essential public good is shifting what should be a public good available to all into a market good. And markets by definition exclude. The health and social benefits are available for some, not all. And that’s the problem.

We’re already seeing increasing privatization of public education across the country driven by budget cuts, vouchers, for-profit charters, and so on. It’s important to understand that privatization impacts the full range of purposes our schools play in our lives, our communities, and our nation—the extra-curricular activities like theater and sports, and the electives, like art and physical education.

These experiences help all of us whether or not we directly participate in them, because we are better as a society—less divided, more of a community, more deeply enriched—when each person has access to them. That is why we must redouble our commitment to public education where everyone–not just those who can afford it–can enjoy its true, wide-ranging value.

Donald Cohen
Executive Director


Photo: Phil Roeder

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