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Playing Youth Sports Takes A Lot More Green Than It Used To

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

You could say 36-year-old Matt Ray works in paradise — on a barrier island off the Florida's southern coast. As athletic director of the Anna Maria Island Community Center, Ray is doing what he loves.

"I grew up playing sports," he says. "I actually played two years of college basketball. So sports have pretty much been my entire life."

The community center where Ray works offers members the chance to join a variety of teams, including basketball, football, soccer, volleyball and kickball — "pretty much any sport an adult or child would want to play," he says.

There's a membership fee to join the center, and other league-related costs. Because Ray works at the center, he and his kids play for free. But without that financial help, he says, he couldn't afford to be as physically active as he is, and couldn't afford the $120 fee per eight-game season for each child.

"Most of my money goes to bills and rent," he says. "It just wouldn't be doable."

All across the U.S., many parents are feeling the same pinch.

In a poll NPR recently conducted in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, only 15 percent of lower-income adults say they play sports. That's compared to 37 percent of higher-income adults who say they play sports.

And, compared with the parents who are better off financially, the adults who make less money are twice as likely to report problems with the costs of their child's sports.

Pressure's On To Play Club Sports

Lenise White, for example, is a single mother in Baltimore who works full time — some days 10 to 12 hours — at a doctor's office.

Her son Timothy is now a teenager. He's been playing football since he was 7 years old on a club team, organized via a community league.

In recent years, club teams have come to dominate youth sports, many parents and coaches say, and children and teens who don't participate can be at a significant disadvantage when they try out for sports in high school. White says she has always wanted to give her son any advantage she could afford.

Timothy Williams IV, Lenise White's son, getting ready for a game two years ago, at age 13.
/ Courtesy of Lenise White
Courtesy of Lenise White
Timothy Williams IV, Lenise White's son, getting ready for a game two years ago, at age 13.

But the steep price — just to outfit her growing athlete — hasn't been easy to cover.

"At the beginning of the year, you're spending roughly $200 — $250 if you have to buy pads or pants," White says. Football shoes with cleats can easily run another $70. "If you have to buy shoulder pads, that might be another $100 to $150," she says.

That's just for the uniform. Then there's the travel. Timothy's team has done well — often competing in other states during playoffs and championship games. Throughout the season, White often drives the car pool.

She pays for gas on these trips, of course, and also for meals on the way home for the hungry boys in her car.

"My son would say, 'Mommy, can we stop and get something to eat? I'm hungry,' " she says. "And I knew he was hungry, because he had just expended so much energy playing in the game" — as had all his teammates.

"So, even though my pocket said, 'I'm empty — don't have anything to take out,' " White says, "I had to spend what I had, to help feed these other children as well."

White makes about $30,000 a year, and says she often has to make difficult choices to give her son experiences that will open new doors.

"I have penny-pinched," she says. "I have not bought things for myself for lunch before, to make sure that my son could have the things that he needed — that I knew would make him happy, and would give him another perspective on the world around him. And one of those vehicles was football."

White says her son's extra years of practice on a good team have helped make him competitive with other kids as he enters his sophomore year in high school and tries out for varsity teams.

Poorer Kids Getting Shut Out

White has been able to make this happen for her son. But lots of parents just can't, says Darryl Hill, who played college and professional football in the 1960s, and now chairs Kids Play USA Foundation, a group dedicated to the changing policies and practices that make youth sports so costly.

Underserved children, Hill says, are being "shut out more and more and more" from youth sports, just because of the expense.

Many well-to-do families now spend thousands of dollars building their child's sports skills, he says — buying high-end equipment, and paying for private lessons. Their kids play on elite teams that may travel across the country to compete.

"These tournaments — out-of-town affairs — are now becoming a forum that scouts and coaches at the college level are looking to, to evaluate players," Hill says. "So, these kids, who might need a scholarship, don't get the exposure because they can't afford to go to these tournaments."

Even worse, he says, many more kids who could benefit from the exercise, camaraderie and discipline of sports end up idle at a time when they're especially vulnerable to the influences of peers — good and bad.

"So now you've got an idle kid just standing on the corner with nothing to do," Hill says. "Particularly in our inner cities, what does that lead to? All of a sudden, home boy drives by and says, 'Hey, we're your family now. We're your team — join us.' "

These days, with increasing funding pressure on public schools, even school teams usually come with a fee, Hill says. Registration costs are sometimes subsidized, but not completely. Public schools increasingly count on parents to help foot the bill for extracurricular activities, including sports.

It's a far cry, Hill says, from his childhood in the 1950s.

"In my generation we had free play — playground sports, pickup games we played among ourselves," he says. "Every day, we would come home from school, and if it was baseball season, we'd run out to the sandlot and play baseball among ourselves — no adult supervision.

"There were leagues around," Hill notes, "but it was fun. We just played." Not so anymore. Despite all the elite teams and high-powered youth leagues across the U.S., he says, statistics show that many children are dropping out of sports early — in droves — often because they can't afford to play.

Our summer series Sports and Health In America is based on the results of NPR's poll with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.