Yesterday Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania (my home State) urged the closure of all youth sports programs until January. I fear that is a short-sighted directive that highlights a broader failure of many in our society to recognize the positive power of sports for children and young adults.
Moreover, COVID and other factors have put pressure on college athletic programs, causing some to debate the merits of the very existence of NCAA sports. Again, I find this a misguided view that misses the impact that competition has in the development of young people.
Let’s start with a simple statement of fact: participation in youth sports correlates to positive long-term life outcomes. This makes sense on its face. Athletes learn to handle pressure, they learn to take direction and work as a team, and they gain firsthand experience with the fact that preparation and effort lead to improved outcomes. These are all critical life lessons, part and parcel with success in many aspects of adult life. If you aren’t willing to simply accept the logical argument in favor of sports participation, there are ample studies available that bear the idea out with statistics:
Even after controlling for family background and cognitive ability, involvement in extracurricular activities predicts higher grades; higher college aspirations, enrollment, and completion; greater self-discipline, self-esteem, and resilience; lower risky behavior such as drug use, delinquency, and sexual activity; and lower truancy rates (Zaff et al. 2003).
Furthermore, the effects of extracurricular activities appear to extend well beyond college: students who are involved in clubs and sports go on to earn higher wages, advance further in their careers, and even vote and volunteer more frequently than their less-involved peers.1
Girls in particular seem to benefit from athletics: Participation reduces the chances of developing heart disease and breast cancer, cuts rates of unplanned pregnancies, lessens obesity, and boosts body self-esteem. And the advantages extend into adulthood: Four out of five female business executives played sports as kids, and women who go on to play sports in college are 25 percent more likely than those who don’t to develop political aspirations.2
The idea of forgoing all these benefits happens against the backdrop of many schools opting for remote learning this Fall. In other words, children will be losing the positive impact of sports along with the social interaction and educational impact of in-person learning. Against the health risk of COVID, which all agree is statistically low for children, there are considerable risks of damage to children owing to isolation. There has been an alarming increase in physical and sexual abuse of children during the pandemic3. One concern is that teachers and coaches are a first line of defense in terms of recognizing and reporting abuse.
In at risk communities the role of sports takes on another level of importance. Coaches sometimes play the role of surrogate parent, and being with a team means being off of streets that have seen a surge in violence this year. If not sports, and not school… what? Remember, keeping kids out of school and off the field doesn’t mean keeping kids away from kids. They will still be at risk of conducting COVID from friends and family, they’ll just be losing the unquestionable benefits of education and competition.
Turning to college athletics, the issue goes beyond COVID to a more long-term financial problem. While NCAA football and basketball programs can be cash cows, most sports programs represent an expense for schools, many of which were experiencing budget challenges even prior to COVID, and now the situation is worse. This has led some to argue that sports programs should be cut so more funding can be directed toward the classrooms. But I would argue there is as much learning happening on the field as off. Again, turning to statistics, according to a study by Gallop:
Former NCAA student-athletes are more likely to be thriving in purpose, social, community and physical wellbeing, and their financial wellbeing is comparable to non-athletes. These patterns persist across NCAA division, graduation cohort, gender, and race and ethnicity.
NCAA student-athletes (39%) are more likely to earn an advanced degree than non-student-athletes (32%). This difference is most pronounced among black graduates, with 49% of black student-athletes versus 39% of black non-athletes attaining an advanced degree.
NCAA student-athletes are slightly more likely (33%) than their nonathlete peers (30%) to have had a good job waiting for them upon their college graduation. Student-athletes who were first-generation college students (FGCS) (36%) are even more likely than their non-athlete FGCS peers (30%) to have had a good job waiting for them upon graduation.
NCAA student-athletes are especially likely, relative to non-athletes, to have benefitted from meaningful and enriching support experiences with professors and mentors in college
In an era when there is debate about the practical merits and financial benefits of some college courses and degrees, participation in NCAA athletics can be defended with cold hard facts like those above. Learning to handle the stresses of training and competing while at the same time keeping up with studies is a form of practical education that has clear application in one’s later life and career. Certainly there are many esoteric realms of study that do far less to prepare students for the real world than managing a career as a college athlete.
Moreover, striving for college athletics as a young athlete is a powerful motivator that helps keep kids on the positive track of youth sports, whose benefits I have already described.
In short, amidst the challenge and danger of COVID-19 we should never forget that children and young adults face other risks and challenges as well. Sports matter, sports are not frivolous, sports shape kids in a very positive way. For most it is a positive influence, for some it is a lifeline. Shutting down youth sports entirely this Fall is a questionable choice, and I sincerely hope it will not be the path we take.
1 Inequity Outside the Classroom: Growing Class Differences in Participation in Extracurricular Activities http://vue.annenberginstitute.org/issues/40/inequity-outside-classroom-growing-class-differences-participation-extracurricular
2 What's Lost When Only Rich Kids Play Sports https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/09/whats-lost-when-only-rich-kids-play-sports/541317/