You hear some version of this stat so often, you figure eventually it’s going to be a Paul Hardcastle song. Somewhere around three-quarters of kids participating in organized sport quit by the time they’re thirteen. Thirteen. Thirteen. Th-th-th-th-th-th-thirteen.
Usually this statistic is accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing. But I’ve never seen anyone worry about the percentage of kids who take up a musical instrument who never make it to high school band. Or the number of kids who start singing and never join a high school chorus. Or the number of kids who try out for a school play who don’t continue into high school theater.
I think the competitive aspect of sports is only reaching what it has been for a number of extracurricular activities for kids. No one ever talks about how someone should be allowed to join the school orchestra and play violin just for fun. You’re expected to get the goddamn notes right. There is nothing special about sports that gives children an inalienable right to be equal no matter what, especially as they get older.
However, what is different about sports is that as an activity, it is something that is possible to do for your own enjoyment and benefit without worrying about if your A’s are too sharp. The disturbing story about youth sports is not that the elite sports are getting more elite, but that fewer opportunities exist for kids to participate in a casual setting. Whether that’s because there’s no supply or no demand is up for debate.
A story published over the weekend by the St. Paul Pioneer Press has some interesting information on both sides of this — about the decline of organized school sports participation, and the decline of casual participation as well. The piece by reporter Bob Shaw says that according to Minnesota Department of Education information, high school sports participation is about half off the peak of 54 percent of students in 1981-82. The story doesn’t say it, but I would find it shocking if other states didn’t see similar declines.
Looking at the story and the always-entertaining comments by readers beneath it, the following reasons are thrown out for the decline. In no particular order:
— Fewer three-sport athletes (one student in three sports counts as three)
— Bigger, consolidated high schools (fewer slots available)
— Student burnout from playing every day since age 5
— Student burnout from trying to balance school, home, work and athletic responsibilites
— Video games
— Overprotective parents who either don’t let their kids run around and play on their own, or are stage moms and dads on travel teams
— The emergence of club teams as a bigger factor in college recruiting
— Working mothers (kids can’t participate in sports early in life if a chauffeur isn’t home)
— Illegal immigrants (Lou Dobbs is apparently a commenter)
— Greater diversity in schools (or, why don’t Muslims play hockey, dammit?)
— Title IX (i.e., girls killing boys sports, though the story notes in soccer and hockey, girls’ participation in Minnesota is up sharply)
— Sports being just too damn serious
— Men controlling sports (thus turning it into a proxy for war, because if women controlled it, it would be all hearts and flowers and game-ending hugs)
— Kids not playing sports on their own, just for fun
They’re coming to ruin our sports!
You might find the above reasons ridiculous, or spot-on, or both. No question, the elite levels of sports are getting more elite at earlier ages. I know it was difficult for my son to start at wrestling at age 9, when most of the kids he competed against had four years’ experience on him. He was done after a year. But it can be done. The wrestling coaches told me my son would probably get his butt kicked for two years, but he would catch up. It just so happened my son liked the wrestling practices, but not waiting around all day at some distant location to wrestle two matches. (I can’t say I blamed him.)
The more distressing information from the Pioneer Press story is that intramural participation rates have sagged so low — an indication that sports in an either-or in which you’re either an elite athlete, or not in the picture.
In the 1980s, about 74,000 children picked from a smorgasbord of 70 intramural sports. The range was impressive — everything from co-ed wrestling to roller-skating.
By 2007-08, intramural programs had evaporated — with only eight sports and 5 percent participation.
My oldest son, the aforementioned ex-wrestler, is playing as a sixth-grader in a seventh- and eighth-grade basketball rec league. It’s great he has an opportunity to play in a casual league just to have a little fun playing hoops. It’s competitive, but it’s hardly AAU ball. The league is a great opportunity, especially for kids who either didn’t make their school junior-high team, or didn’t want to bother with it.
On the other hand, the reason he is playing with older kids is because the league couldn’t get enough of them to sign up to make four full teams. Certainly the economy is cutting down on the number of families who are going to pay even relatively low rec-league fees. But you wonder if kids and their families are even interested in the few opportunities available to play casually. Or maybe they’ve been conditioned to think no such opportunities exist, or should.