In one corner, lush green grass and a group of well-equipped youths sweat as they kick a soccer ball; in the other, aimless peers loiter the streets with their friends.
Passersby would quickly note the disparity between the two groups of children: the former, agile and sturdy, emanating an athletic vibrancy from within; the latter, largely corpulent and heavy-footed, interspersing their playful frolicking with heavy breaths.
According to best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel, such scenes are becoming increasingly common on American streets.
In the past, people used to worry about the “digital divide” and fear that underprivileged children would fall behind in education due to information disparities. However, with the rise of the internet and smartphones, there seemed to be hope that the “digital divide” could be bridged.
But now, a new and more insidious wave of division is quietly sweeping across America, as an increasing number of poor children and teenagers are being left out of physical education.
Even in a country where sports culture is so prevalent, some children have far less time for exercise and fitness than their wealthier peers. This disparity has been vividly described by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel as the “body gap”.
In his article, he warns that because these children are unable to excel in sports, they may find it difficult to compete for equal opportunities in the fiercely competitive American society. Over time, the “physical divide” not only fails to promote educational fairness, but also goes against the concept of holistic education.
What makes it difficult is that as the wealth gap widens in American society, there is no “perfect” solution to the “physical divide.”
Sports activities only for the rich and poor
Sports in America dominate every facet of life.
Not only does the United States boast a series of dazzling sports stars and a mega-event like the Super Bowl that can rake in $220,000 in just one second, but it also has a complete system for cultivating the physical literacy of youth.
Since the US Department of Education included “physical literacy” in the student education guidelines, youth sports have been highly valued.
In 2015, the Aspen Institute expanded on this concept, describing sports literacy as “an ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for a lifetime,” and hoping to use this to promote a comprehensive network of sports education that connects families, schools, and communities.
Since the US Department of Education included “physical literacy” in the student education curriculum, youth sports have been receiving increasing attention. However, the education blueprint to improve physical literacy for every child has become increasingly unclear in the face of growing wealth inequality.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2020, 70% of children from affluent families with incomes over $105,000 participated in sports training, compared to 51% from middle-income families and only 31% from families below the poverty line.
A year later, educators in the Seattle area conducted a comprehensive survey of students’ sports participation from fifth grade to high school. They were surprised to find that affluent peers not only participated more actively in sports but also had nearly three times as many children reaching the sports standards as those from ordinary families.
The trend of the “fitness gap” is spreading to the middle class as well. Children from families with an annual income of about $50,000 had a sports participation rate of 35.7%, down from 38.1% in 2013. Meanwhile, children from families with an annual income over $100,000 saw their sports participation rate increase from 43.9% to 46% during the same period.
Parents from the wealthiest families spent four times as much on their children’s sports activities as those from low-income families. Even Jon Solomon, the editor of the Aspen Sports Project, couldn’t help but complain that sports are now 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 sports-related expenses.
“Especially for children from low-income families, if they cannot participate in sports in a school environment, where else can they go to exercise?” Solomon said with a helpless shrug. “The answer is nowhere to be found.”
Schools Struggle to Fill Sports Gaps
Ann Paulls-Neal has been a physical education teacher at John Beck Elementary School for the past 20 years. The school has excellent students, and “all of my students participate in at least one sport after school, such as soccer or other activities.”
However, when she began teaching at Will Elementary School, which primarily serves low-income families, she noticed that the usual sports scenes were no longer present. After school, most children simply played on the playground, and “only three children participated in sports outside of school.”
According to data from Bustedcoverage website, 58% of families who do not participate in extracurricular sports activities cite high costs as the main reason for their children not participating. In addition to the cost sensitivity, Neal found that parents were also concerned about the high hidden costs associated with sports training.
For example, transportation time and energy. Wealthy children do not have to consider many of these factors. If their preferred club is not nearby, they “are willing to move for it, but children from low-income families are clearly not so easy.”
What worries educators even more is that schools were once able to provide opportunities for training for these students who could not afford it, but now, physical education classes that should have bridged the “physical divide” are being impacted.
Due to budget shortages, the McClain County Board of Education voted this year to cut a series of expenses, including reducing funding for sports programs in local public schools.
This means that by next year, basketball, cross country, track and field, wrestling, baseball, softball, and volleyball will all disappear from the curriculum at local middle schools.
“This is a devastating blow to children,” said Kristen Weikle, the head of the school district, who is very concerned that many schools are forced to keep students out of physical education classes.
Although the United States explicitly stated in 1938 that “public schools should be responsible for students’ physical and mental well-being,” schools across the country have been required to offer various types of sports courses and events to improve students’ physical fitness during subsequent education reforms.
But now, the possibility of American public schools providing sports programs for students is visibly decreasing.
The non-profit organization Physical Activity Alliance lowered the national school physical health rating from a C- in 2014 to a D- in its latest report. This is the first downgrade of this indicator in nine years.
This storm of reducing sports programs has even swept into universities. Iowa State University recently announced that it will stop offering four courses: men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s tennis, in an attempt to ease its financial constraints.
Faced with doubts about the reduction in physical education, Weikle eventually returned the ball to parents and suggested that they seek more opportunities for children to participate in sports outside of school.
The cost of commercializing sports
As some children have nothing to do after school, some teachers and volunteers are making efforts to change that.
Valentine Walker, a high school football coach, founded a free football club in the area as early as 2008.
At the time, Walker’s 8-year-old son was practicing baseball and soccer, which cost several hundred dollars per season. However, many immigrant families in the area, including Jamaicans, Africans, and Hispanics, could not afford the club fees.
Growing up in a poor family in Jamaica, Walker understood the struggles of new immigrant families. He borrowed school equipment from friends and provided free soccer training for these kids. He even borrowed a 13-seater van to take the team to matches, with six or seven players sharing a room for accommodation. Walker joked, “I had to stick my nose under the door to breathe fresh air.”
Currently, Walker is leading the second group of players in this club. In the summer, he leads children for soccer training from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and then heads to the weight room for strength training.
After cutting costs, they managed to keep the cost of each season at around $400 per person. Families who cannot afford the fees seek sponsorship from others.
Walker admits that the club’s main task is to identify outstanding potential players, but he genuinely hopes to help more children enjoy the game of soccer. “I still hope to do my best to reduce some unfairness,” he said.
Several community organizations are also taking action. Volunteers in the Montville area raised $16,000 to buy 200 new football helmets and donate them to local youth. The city of Lincoln is also actively building a youth sports center with a budget of up to $27 million.
However, once the “physical gap” is formed, it is difficult to overcome.
Budget for constructing leisure spaces and parks in the United States has decreased by 21% over the past four years, according to data. The COVID-19 pandemic has further weakened the budgets of some non-profit sports projects, resulting in layoffs.
The most direct impact is that community sports organizations cannot afford to hire good coaches, which means that they cannot teach children well. As a result, more children can only join competitive and expensive private clubs, and community sports organizations’ profits have decreased sharply, leading to a vicious cycle.
Data from Aspen shows that the participation rate in student team sports in the United States has dropped from 45% in 2008 to 37% in 2016.
“I am worried that youth sports are getting further and further away from the word ‘fair’,” said a youth sports development non-profit organization leader, expressing his concerns frankly to the public.
Sports has become an arms race of burning money
WinterGreen data shows that 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, while public schools struggle to keep up with the development of private youth sports industry.
In North America, excellent sports performance has become the key to entering good primary schools, middle schools, and universities. According to data released by Harvard University, the proportion of athletes admitted to the school each year is maintained between 10% and 15%. Outstanding athletes can not only enter prestigious schools and receive scholarships but also earn high incomes and enjoy fame and fortune in their future professional careers.
In order to enter the green channel of sports education as early as possible, many families plan the direction of professional sports training for their children from an early age.
For example, in figure skating, children are mostly enrolled in baby classes at the age of three, and then enter professional club training. Starting from the age of seven, they participate in national competitions. By the time they apply for college, they already have a series of competition medals.
Although according to the traditional logic of cultivating the physical literacy of American youth, many sports projects will not begin professional training until middle school, the rise of private sports clubs has made early professional training possible. The commercialization of the sports market has also made professional training a reality.
In 2009, the US Kids Golf World Championship established a category for boys under the age of six, and the Amateur Athletic Union also established the National Basketball Championship for boys and girls under the age of eight. The NCAA has also lowered the age of basketball players to seventh grade.
The result of early specialization is that children train intensively, and sports parents’ wallets also shrink dramatically.
In figure skating, for example, in order to become an outstanding figure skater, children have their own professional training team from a young age, including coaches for spins, gliding, choreography, and physical training for on-ice and off-ice training.
With different teachers taking turns to teach six times a week, the training fee can be as high as $2 per minute. And this training expenditure does not include coach escort fees during the season, sports equipment expenses, and travel and accommodation expenses during competitions.
Even ball sports, which are favored by most American parents, are not cheap. According to data from the Aspen Institute, in 2022, among the top three ball sports in youth rankings in the US, the annual average cost of soccer is as high as $1188, basketball is $1002, and baseball is $714.
According to Daniel Gould, the director of the Michigan State University Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, today’s sports are different from before. Children are pushed into high-intensity specialized training from a young age, and the belief that winning is everything dominates the sports world.
More entrepreneurs and private coaches are eyeing the families who can afford to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per season. They use technology to market, organize, and create competitions, providing services for sports parents who are willing to pay.
Eustis is one such organization leader. In her elite sports training program, even 3-year-old children can experience these projects with their parents. She believes that “the best and smartest people want to provide first-class sports training for their children.”
Under the influence of the elite sports philosophy, these private clubs are making a lot of money. Time magazine reported that even during the economic downturn, a company that books youth sports travel tours, Travel Team USA, had doubled its revenue year after year.
In the American youth sports market, where family spending dominates, the pure spirit of sportsmanship is gradually disappearing. In the past, sports brought joy to children, but now, sports have become a benchmark for measuring the wealth of youth.
According to Aspen Institute data, nearly 30% of American teenagers have completely lost interest in organized sports.
Perhaps this is also the silent rebellion of young people who have seen through the American elite sports philosophy.