Amid downturn, a rally to save youth sports
We’re at an interesting point in youth sports. On the one hand, any program, particularly one affiliated with a school, that draws from a truly downtrodden area, particularly an urban area, is dying on the vine. Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the story, cities across the country are blowing out their budgets to build new youth sports facilities not only for their own local pleasure, but as an economic engine because of all the tournaments it could hold, and the money they bring in from parents who are spending more and more to get their kids into bigger and bigger leagues.
This video on the Abilene News-Reporter site has Jon Smith, director of the Abilene Youth Sports Authority, this week explaining why taxpayers should love to kick in to build a $40 million facility in the central Texas city of 120,000. Last year, the people of Abilene told the youth sports authority to stay out of their wallets. Geez, people, the Authority itself was founded, in its own words, “on Christian principles” — how much more of a sign from God do you need?
Anyway, it’s not surprising that those who have the money to spend, spend it, and those who can’t, don’t. What’s interesting is cases like Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate went from 5 percent to 18 percent in about six months (Elkhart is more reliant on manufacturing jobs, as a percentage of employment, than any metro area in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — something like 40 percent). I understand why the parents want to keep their kids in activities, despite the economy. As they say in the MSBNC.com article, it’s fun, it’s relatively inexpensive (as entertainment and socializing for the adults, too), it gets kids up and moving around, and, hey, it’s not the kids’ fault the RV plants shut down.
However, one thing I began to suspect after I wrote the article, and especially in wondering how long people in Elkhart can keep up youth sports spending (in the most devastated parts of the city, they aren’t), is the importance of youth sports in staying middle class. After all, if you’re in between jobs, you can suck it up, sign up your kids and maintain your social standing. If you’re having to pull your kids out of stuff, that’s not only disappointing to your children, but it’s also a signal to your family and the world that something has fundamentally changed. You’re not a middle-class person who happened to run into a rut. You’re a poor person.
This is amateur sociology on my part. I didn’t ask the people of Elkhart if that’s how they felt. I’m not sure how many have given it that much thought, and I’m not a budding Marxist trying to show how capitalism crushes the workers’ spirits. But as a parent, I know that if I had to start saying no to my kids about signing up for their favorite activities, it would be a profound change in mindset about who we are and where we stand as a family.
By the way, when you talk to the people in Elkhart, you can’t help but root for them. Not to say that people in other areas hard-hit by the recession aren’t worthy of support. But in Elkhart I found people who carried a real and genuinely positive attitude that somehow, things were going to get better, and they were going to make things better the best they could. I hope they succeed.