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Youth sports needs its own economic stimulus package

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When President Obama put together his stimulus package earlier this year, any money that went to schools came with one caveat — that it not be used for anything that is primarily used for sports. Perhaps it’s time to rethink that position.

Up2Us, a coalition of school- and community-based youth sports, released a report on Oct. 21 that noted last year sports programs were cut collectively by $2 billion nationwide. It met in Washington during that time to discuss the implications of these cuts, and how to get Washington and other lawmakers to pay attention to what havoc they might wreak. “The ‘ripple effect’ of these budget cuts will extend far beyond the playing fields, and represents a loss for children and youth physically, emotionally, and academically,” said Paul Caccamo, executive director of Up2Us, in a written statement. “Sports participation isn’t just about improving your serve or throwing a touchdown pass, but about instilling lifelong, positive character traits like strength, commitment, and dedication.”

It would seem like losing sports seems like a small price to pay if academic programs are otherwise saved. And as far as the $2 billion in cuts, the organization doesn’t note its overall starting base, nor how the cuts compare to paring of academic programs. Certainly, Up2Us, given its membership, has a vested interest in spreading the word that things are dire. And, hey, if things are so bad, why are so many communities still making grand plans for youth sports complexes?

The problem is this: while there are plenty of parents still willing to fork out whatever is necessary to make sure Tad and Muffy get a place on the travel for that elusive college scholarship, there are also plenty of children whose access to youth sports is economically limited to school or community programs. If those get cut, more at-risk children are suddenly left with nothing but time on their hands. We’re going to go back to the 19th century, when participation in sports had more to do with your upper-crust standing than your athletic talent or desire.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune in March did a good series that looked at falling sports participation rates and looked at a lack of opportunity in many schools — both for intramural and varsity sports — as a big factor. Public schools under budget strains are being forced to consider either making major cuts in sports or levying pay-to-play fees on athletes, both of which have the effect of weeding out potential athletes who are stuck in a sports-less district or whose families can’t come up with the money for sports.

I’m a big believer in youth sports. Maybe not that they’re the sole way to prevent obesity and turn delinquents into contributing members of society, but I think they do have a purpose beyond concussion distribution. Still, I would be hard-pressed to tell a school district it should cut teachers in favor of new artificial turf, or that federal stimulus money should pay to gas up the basketball team’s bus for an out-of-state tournament.

Instead, I think there’s a strong case to be made for some sort of stimulus for community sports programs and intramurals. Yes, I coach in a community sports league, so maybe I have a bias. But if the goal is to save sports and get as many children involved as possible, it’s not varsity athletics that needs our attention. Why not, for example, give grants to communities so they can reduce the price of children’s athletic programs, or so they can expand their offerings? What about a tax break for eligible youth sports expenses? (By that I mean sign-up fees and equipment for publicly run programs, not writing off the thousands you spent on your daughter’s personal softball pitching coach.)

And why not make funding available to schools, from kindergarten upward, to finance and develop intramural programs? Hey, I have a bias there, too. My two oldest children transferred from a Catholic school with organized sports to a public elementary school that didn’t have them — but had intramurals. They love them. Everybody who shows up gets to play, and it’s more about the activity then investing your time and energy in some future pro dream. Plus, the only time parents are there is after it’s over, to pick up their kids. I only wish my oldest son’s junior high had intramurals, because if you get cut from a school team, you have no other athletic options. Plus, with intramurals, you don’t have to pay to gas up the team bus.

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Dan Hawkins, I’m right there with you, brother.

Written by rkcookjr

October 22, 2009 at 1:36 am

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