George Boardman: It’s time to make youth sports fun again, if you want kids to flourish
Observations from the center stripe: Deal edition
HUNGRY for a deal: A house for sale at Lake of the Pines is offering free pizza to the buyer … VOTERS IN two fire prone areas of El Dorado County rejected revenue measures that would have maintained or increased fire personnel. I trust we won’t hear complaints about slow response times when the next big fire hits … WHO KNEW: Smoking cigarettes is apparently better for you than vaping, at least in the short term … TIP TO motorists: It’s too late if you flip on the turn signal as you start the turn ….
The biggest surprise for me when we moved to western Nevada County in 2000 was the high level of interest in high school sports, particularly football.
I spent most of my life on the San Francisco Peninsula, where interest in high school sports was lukewarm at best. The only people who really seemed to care were students and their parents. Interest ended at the school boundary, and nobody cared what you did on the field or court 10 years ago.
I knew that wasn’t the case everywhere. I had read “Friday Night Lights” and experienced Texas high school football when I was there in the Army in the late ‘60s. As they say in the Lone Star State, the most popular sport is football and the second most popular is spring football. The San Antonio Express used to brag that it published at least the score of every high school game played in south Texas — about 200 games on an average Friday night in the fall.
Still, this is California, where there are a million things to do on Friday night. That may be the case on the coast where I came from, but I soon discovered people in inland California had a different take on the subject.
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The first evidence came on one of our house hunting trips here on Labor Day weekend in 1999, when I picked up The Union and saw a picture of a halfback running around end. They start real early, I thought. It turned out to be a scrimmage. Clearly, somebody was anxious for the season to get started.
Then there was the coverage in the area’s only big newspaper, the Sacramento Bee. The coverage was not only extensive, it was rhapsodic: Storied programs playing legendary games while iconic coaches bestrode the sidelines. Really? Then I discovered the radio play-by-plays, even a TV broadcast. Who knew?
Enthusiasm and support still appear to be strong, even if participation by students is waning. Nevada Union lists 35 players on its varsity team this year while Bear River, which hasn’t had a freshman team for seven years, is getting by with 22 players. But at least they’re still in the game.
The season is just four weeks old but attrition is already taking a toll on teams with small rosters. Burbank High School was trailing Sheldon 47-12 and had just 16 healthy players available when it waved the white flag in the third quarter. Modesto Christian was down 62-0 to Edison of Stockton and had just 14 players when it called it quits in the third quarter.
These are the consequences of the decline prep football has experienced in participation since it peaked in the early ’00s. Participation in California dropped from about 104,000 players in 2011 to 91,000 last academic year, according to the California Interscholastic Federation. The San-Joaquin Section, which includes NU and Bear River, reported a decline from 12,457 players to 12,058 in the last two years.
Many parents have discouraged their kids from playing because new research — and the publicity it received — highlighted the dangers of concussion. It was thought for many years that a player had to experience several concussions before they impacted cognitive skills, and most kids would be out of the game before then. The new research shows that one or two concussions can do the damage if they’re severe enough.
It’s interesting to note that Aaron Rodgers, who went from a star at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico to a megastar in the National Football League, emphasized player safety in announcing a recent gift to area schools. Rodgers donated 375 helmets — the VICIS ZERO1 model rated safest by NFL/NFLPA lab tests three years running — to Pleasant Valley, Chico, and Paradise high schools.
“I chose to invest in VICIS because of their ultimate commitment to player protection,” Rodgers said in a statement. “These kids deserve the best, and I’m happy to play a small role in outfitting them with the safest helmets.”
Along with safer equipment, officials have limited the amount of contact allowed in practice and have put more emphasis on proper blocking and tackling techniques in an attempt to allay fears. Still, you can’t escape the fact that football is a violent sport.
While football has received the most attention (it is still the most popular sport at the high school level), other sports are also experiencing a decline in participation by America’s youth — not a good sign in a nation with a high rate of childhood obesity.
A survey conducted by the Aspen Institute and the Utah State Families in Sports Lab found that the number of kids participating in sports is down dramatically: 38% are playing team sports today versus 45% a decade ago. The average kid is quitting sports after less than three years — at the age of 11.
One big factor is money. Team fees, travel costs, coaching, equipment — the price keeps going up, driving away kids from families that can’t afford the bill. That creates an exclusive competitive environment — the fraction of the population that has the means to compete.
“Parents who can afford to do so (are investing) more heavily in their child at an early age,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program. “When you do that, you begin to push aside the families that can’t afford the youth arms race. You also end up heaping enormous amounts of pressure on the bodies and minds of the children who are still in the game.”
The solution? Make sports fun again. Dial back the win-at-all-costs competitiveness and emphasize inclusion and free play, Farrey said. “The game-changers in all of this are parents,” he said. “They don’t know about the value of free play in developing creativity. They don’t fully appreciate the value of playing multiple sports … as a way of developing skills that are going to make you better in a different sport.”
I hate to break the news to parents reading this, but your kids probably aren’t going to become sports superstars. But several studies show that if they actually enjoy playing sports, they are less likely to be obese, more likely to stay in school, more likely to go to college, less likely to suffer chronic diseases, and more likely to be active as parents.
That sounds like a winner to me.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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