In the United States, where sports culture is thriving, more and more children are being left behind. On one side, a group of well-equipped young boys sweating profusely while playing soccer on lush green grass; on the other side, their peers loitering aimlessly on the streets.
If a passerby were to witness this scene, they would immediately notice the difference between the two groups of children. The former are agile and energetic, exuding an aura of athleticism from within, while the latter are often overweight, lumbering around, and panting heavily while playing.
According to Matt Richtel, a bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, such scenes are becoming increasingly common on the streets of America.
In the past, people were worried about the “digital divide,” fearing that low-income children would fall behind their wealthier peers in education due to differences in access to information. However, with the rise of the Internet and smartphones, the digital divide appeared to be closing.
But now, a new, more insidious wave of division is quietly sweeping across America, as more and more impoverished children and teenagers are being left outside the realm of sports.
Even in a country where sports culture is thriving, some children have far less time for exercise and fitness than their wealthier peers.In a country where sports and fitness culture is thriving, some kids have far less access to physical activity than their wealthy peers. Matt, in his article, vividly calls this disparity the “physical divide.”
He warns that without opportunities to excel in sports, these children may struggle to compete on an equal footing in America’s highly competitive society. This growing physical divide not only fails to promote educational equity but also contradicts the philosophy of holistic education.
However, the problem is complicated by the widening wealth gap in American society, and a “perfect” solution to the physical divide remains elusive.
Only Rich and Poor Kids Play Sports
The dominance of sports in America is evident in every aspect of society. Not only are there a series of star athletes and the ultra-lucrative Super Bowl, which generates $220,000 per second, but there is also an entire system dedicated to developing youth sports skills.
Since the U.S. Department of Education incorporated “physical literacy” into the student education curriculum, youth sports have been highly valued.
In 2015, the Aspen Institute expanded the definition of “physical literacy” to include “the ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life,” and hopes that it will promote a holistic network of sports education connecting families, schools, and communities.
A blueprint for enhancing the physical education of every child is becoming increasingly unclear in the face of the widening wealth gap. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2020, 70% of children from affluent families with incomes exceeding $105,000 participated in sports training, while the participation rate for children from middle-income families was approximately 51%, and only 31% for those from families below the poverty line.
A year later, educators in the Seattle area conducted a comprehensive survey of the athletic ability of children from fifth grade to high school. They were surprised to find that affluent peers were not only more active in sports, but the number of children from wealthy families who met the athletic benchmarks was nearly three times that of children from ordinary families.
The trend of the “physical divide” is also spreading to the middle class. The participation rate of children from families with an annual income of about $50,000 in sports activities has dropped from 38.1% in 2013 to 35.7%. However, during the same period, the participation rate of children from families with an annual income over $100,000 increased from 43.9% to 46%.
The wealthiest families spend four times as much on their children’s sports activities as low-income families. Even Jon Solomon, the editor-in-chief of the Aspen Sports Project, couldn’t help but comment that sports are dividing people into rich and poor.
According to a survey by the University of Michigan, only 51% of families with an annual income over $60,000 can afford sports activities, while most other families cannot afford the associated expenses.
“For low-income children, especially, if they cannot participate in sports activities in a school environment, where will they go to exercise?” Solomon helplessly shrugged his shoulders. “The answer is nowhere to be found.”
Schools unable to fill the gap in sports activities
For the past 20 years, physical education teacher Ann Paulls-Neal has been teaching at John Beck Elementary School, where the students are excellent in sports. “All of my students participate in at least one sport after school, such as soccer or other activities,” she said.
However, after she started teaching at Will Elementary School, which primarily serves low-income families, she found that the usual sports scene was no longer present. After school, most children just play on the playground, “only three children practice sports outside of school.”
According to data from the Bustedcoverage website, among families of teenagers who do not participate in extracurricular sports, 58% explicitly state that the high cost of fees is the main reason why their children do not participate in sports.
In addition to being sensitive to costs, Neal found that parents are also concerned about the significant hidden costs of sports training, such as transportation time and energy. Wealthy children do not have to consider many things. If their favorite club is not nearby, “they are willing to move for it, but low-income children obviously do not have it so easy.”
What worries educators even more is that schools that could provide opportunities for these financially disadvantaged students to train are now being impacted by budget shortfalls. This physical education classroom that was supposed to bridge the “fitness gap” is now being hit first.
Due to budget shortfalls, the McClain County Board of Education voted this year to cut a series of expenditures, including reducing investment in local public school physical education programs.
That means that by next year, basketball, cross country, track and field, wrestling, baseball, softball, and volleyball will all disappear from the curriculum in local middle schools.
“This is a devstating blow to the children,” said Kristen Weikle, the district’s spokesperson, who is concerned that many schools are forced to keep students out of the physical education classroom.
Although the United States explicitly stated in 1938 that “public schools are responsible for students’ physical and psychological well-being,” schools across the country are required to implement a variety of sports courses and competitions to enhance students’ physical fitness in subsequent educational reforms.
However, the possibility of sports projects that public schools provide for students in the United States is visibly decreasing.
Non-profit organization Physical Activity Alliance recently downgraded the national school’s physical health rating from a C- in 2014 to a D-. This is the first downgrade in this index in nine years.
This storm of reduced physical education courses has even swept into universities. Recently, Iowa State University announced that it will stop offering four courses, men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, diving, and men’s tennis, in an effort to alleviate financial pressure.
Faced with criticism of the reduction in physical education classes, Weikle eventually kicked the ball back to parents, suggesting that they seek more opportunities for their children to participate in sports outside of school.
Sports Commercialization Comes at a Cost
As some teachers and volunteers strive to keep children engaged after school, Valentine Walker, a high school football coach, founded a free football club in the area as early as 2008. With his son, aged eight at the time, practicing baseball and football, they had to spend hundreds of dollars a season. However, the newly arrived immigrant families in the neighborhood from Jamaica, Africa, and Hispanic backgrounds couldn’t afford the club fees.
Growing up in a poor family in Jamaica, Walker knew the struggles of new immigrant families. He borrowed school equipment from friends and provided free football training to these children. He also borrowed a 13-seat bread truck and took the players to games. If they needed accommodation, six or seven players would share one room. Walker joked, “I had to stick my nose under the door so I could breathe fresh air.”
Currently, he is responsible for the second batch of players in the club. During the summer, from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. every day, Walker leads the children in football training, followed by strength training in the weight room.
After some “belt-tightening,” they have kept the cost of each season at around $400 per person. Families who cannot afford it also seek sponsorship from others.
Walker candidly admitted that the primary task of the club is to select outstanding players with potential, but he has indeed helped more children enjoy the fun of football. “I still hope to do my best to reduce some unfairness.”
Some community organizations are also taking action. Volunteers in the Montville area raised $16,000 to buy 200 new football helmets to donate to local youth. Lincoln City is also actively building a youth sports center with a budget of up to $27 million.
However, once the “physical divide” forms, it is difficult to overcome it. Data shows that the budget for building leisure spaces and parks in the United States has decreased by 21% over the past four years. The COVID-19 pandemic has also left some public sports projects facing budget cuts and layoffs.
The most direct impact is that community sports organizations do not have enough money to hire good coaches, and without good coaches, they cannot teach children well. As a result, more children can only enter competitive and expensive private clubs, and community sports organizations’ revenues have declined, leading to a vicious cycle.
Aspen Data shows that the participation rate of American student team sports has dropped from 45% in 2008 to 37% in 2016.
“I am worried that youth sports are moving further away from the word ‘fair,'” said a youth sports development charity head, expressing his concerns frankly to the public.
Sports has become a money-burning arms race in the United States, with the flourishing of the private youth sports industry, while public schools are struggling to keep up. According to WinterGreen Research, the annual market revenue of the sports industry in the United States has grown from $3.5 billion in 2010 to $28 billion in 2021.
In North America, excellent sports performance is the key to getting into good primary, secondary, and tertiary schools. According to data from Harvard University, the proportion of athletes admitted each year is between 10% and 15%. Excellent athletes not only have the opportunity to enter prestigious schools and receive scholarships, but also earn a considerable income and achieve fame and fortune by pursuing a professional sports career.
To gain early admission to the green channel of sports education, many families plan the direction of their children’s professional sports training from a young age. For example, in figure skating, children are mostly sent to baby classes for enlightenment at the age of 3, and then enter professional clubs for training. At the age of 7, they begin to compete in national leagues. By the time they apply for college, they already have a series of championship medals.
Although according to the logic of cultivating youth sports literacy in the United States, many sports projects traditionally require further specialized training in middle school, the rise of private sports clubs has made early specialization training possible, and the marketization of sports has made specialized training a reality.
Michigan State University’s Youth Sport Institute director, Daniel Gould, admits that sports today are different from before. Children are now required to undergo high-intensity professional training from a young age, and the belief that they have to win at all costs dominates the world.
More entrepreneurs and private coaches are also focusing on these families who can afford to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars each season. They use technology to market, organize, and create competitions to provide services to sports-loving parents.
Eustis is one such organization’s leader. In the elite development tournament she planned, three-year-old children can experience these events with their parents. She believes that “the best and smartest people want to provide their children with top-notch sports training.”
Under the influence of the elite sports concept, these private clubs are making a lot of money. According to Time magazine, even in the depths of an economic crisis, a company that books youth sports tours, Travel Team USA, sees its revenue double every year.
In the American youth sports market, where household spending dominates, the pure joy of sports is fading away. In the past, sports brought joy to children, but now, sports have become a yardstick for measuring the wealth of young people’s families.
Data from the Aspen Institute shows that nearly 30% of American teenagers have lost interest in organized sports.
Perhaps this is the voiceless rebellion of young people who have seen through the elite sports concept in the United States.