“You’re here for Kevin, aren’t you?” she said.
The woman at the front desk of the Seat Pleasant Activities Center is aware of the building’s significance. After all, this is the gym where NBA superstar Kevin Durant first emerged, honing his basketball skills on the hardwood just outside Washington in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Durant’s story is a remarkable one: From humble beginnings, the 6-foot-11-inch phenomenon has made a name for himself since his NBA debut in 2007 as basketball’s purest scorer, perhaps the most gifted in NBA history. Yet the youth sports stage Durant came up on is anything but a level playing field, and has shut out countless young adults from enriching their lives. Access to youth sports is fundamentally unequal, and the District is a microcosm of a broader imbalance.
“I don’t think it’s a Washington, D.C. problem. It’s a nationwide problem,” said Patrick Leonard, director of the Culmore Club branch of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington. “It’s an inner-city problem. It’s a suburban problem. And above all it’s a socioeconomic problem. I would say it’s an epidemic.”
According to a recent study by the Aspen Institute, wealth is the primary determinant of one’s participation in athletics. Of children aged 6-12 whose families earn $100,000 or more, only 11.5 percent are “physically inactive.” This number is nearly 30 percent in children whose families earn $25,000 or less. The gap in participation between the income groups widens when focusing on team sports participation. Over 68 percent of children in the highest income bracket played a team sport on at least one day in 2016, compared to less than 35 percent of children in the lowest income bracket.
Money is only one component of the divide, as Leonard sees it. The time required to facilitate a child’s sports schedule also plays a role in who gets to participate.
“If you’re a single parent trying to make ends meet, or a two-parent household where both parents have jobs, the idea of driving your kid out to a field on Saturday is not the easiest thing,” Leonard said. “That minivan, carpooling, orange slice lifestyle is not the same for everybody.”
Studies show that participation in sports has an enriching effect on children and their education. A 2008 paper from the University of Minnesota reports that “there is a strong, positive correlation between interscholastic athletic participation and educational performance.” Specifically, youth sports participation is linked to higher graduation rates and test scores. It has also been linked to lower crime rates and fewer high school suspensions, as a 2012 study by the University of Michigan found.
The inverse is also true. Lacking the same access to sports that higher-income children enjoy, disadvantaged youth are likely to face ramifications that go beyond the field, said Mark Hyman, professor at the George Washington University business school.
“They’re important building blocks, foundational experiences to take into your professional life, and your life once you have a family,” Hyman said. “Kids who don’t have access to sports or who are dropping out early, they miss these lessons. They’re not experiencing these things, and this puts them at a disadvantage.”
Jim Stickle, basketball coach at K-8 Holy Trinity School in Georgetown, views sports as a big part of civic development in youth.
“It’s pretty apparent to those who are in sports or whose kids have done sports that it’s one of the most developmentally effective tools to raise conscious, team-playing citizens,” Stickle said.
Leonard believes that the field of youth sports needs to take a long, hard look at its priorities. In particular, he thinks the focus should not be on training kids to get into professional leagues, but rather on teaching invaluable life skills, such as sportsmanship, teamwork, and collaboration. The Kevin Durants will always emerge, yet the goal of youth sports should not be to churn out NBA all-stars.
“The primary problem is that we looked for sports to be an ‘out’ for kids with extreme talent,” Leonard said. “The joy of sports isn’t in the identification or the college scholarship that one can get. It’s the community building that sports provides.”
Inequality in access to youth sports has increased in recent years. Though there has always been a class divide in the United States, the separation of sports into haves and have-nots is a relatively recent phenomenon. Hyman said that a shift in public policy, particularly toward decreasing public investment, has widened the chasm.
“Funding for youth sports and recreation generally has been in decline at least since the 1980s. When I was a kid, the community where I lived had rec fields that were well-maintained, certainly over the summer,” Hyman said. “Now, it’s common for kids to be playing on travel teams. The whole system has been privatized.” Calling the new world a “youth-sports-industrial complex,” he noted that a move from public to private brings about higher entry prices to youth sports.
Public investments in youth sports have decreased as a share of U.S. GDP since 1970, and the number of well-maintained spaces available for kids to play has gone down as a result. Consequently, transportation becomes a key concern, as the majority of sports leagues are now located in the suburbs, far removed from kids in cities.
“Kids who are coming from middle-class, affluent families, their parents are typically available to drive them from games and practices,” Hyman said. “Kids who’re living in cities don’t have that option.”
Of particular concern to Leonard is the “pay-to-play” system that has come to define competitive youth sports. Whether it’s the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) or travel soccer teams that charge exorbitant fees, the barriers to entry for participation in youth sports can be extraordinary.
“The lack of offerings at schools and the growth of pay-for-play have prevented kids from playing,” said Chris Hayes, athletic director at Holy Trinity School in Georgetown. “AAU and travel sports are a major cost for families. Youth sports are becoming the same that college athletics have become the past two decades: major money makers.”
In the end, major cuts to public schools’ athletic programs, such as those in Fairfax County which either eliminated sports or resulted in athletic fees, do not harm the affluent families who can afford to put their children on travel teams and other pay-to-play ventures. But the kids who rely on the public school’s athletic programs are left out, even in a wealthy area like Fairfax.
“As the money dries up, so does the opportunity,” Leonard said.
Consequently, kids from wealthier families are the only ones able to play. “What’s $100, $400 a season to these fam lies [in Fairfax County]?” Leonard said. “Well, there’s pockets of Fairfax County, where I work in, where the average household income is under $24,000. When you cut the sports from school, you do so from the more traditional place to get kids involved in sports.”
Pay-to-pay leagues have also come under scrutiny for purportedly facilitating a harmful culture. With regards to AAU, the organization has been accused of instilling bad habits in athletes, teaching wrong fundamentals or excessive individualism. Current Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr criticized the system in a 2012 op-ed in Grantland. “The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric,” he wrote.
In addition to describing a culture of exclusivity, Leonard identified a particularly jarring example of the financial and structural barriers to participating in youth sports: joining a soccer league.
The first step to fielding a team is finding a place to play. Then, signing up a team to play twice a week, on Fridays and Saturday, requires a registration fee of $1200, Leonard said. Equipment, jerseys, and transportation are more costs to consider. After that, if you consider signing up the team for the National Capital Soccer League, the official youth soccer league in the Washington area, more problems present themselves. Individuals have to pay a tryout fee. If they make the team, they also have to pay registration and administration fees. Those fees recur every year.
“Try to book a field,” Leonard said, his voice breaking. “And imagine that you’re me and you have a group of 12 high schoolers who desperately want to play soccer. Try to get them signed up in a league.”
Leonard believes that there are far-reaching implications of the failure to widen sports access to young athletes. In particular, he believes that the United States’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is a consequence of years of growing inequality in the sport.
“There’s a big debate on why a country that holds 400 million [people] could miss the World Cup, and if it’s because we don’t have elite athletes,” Leonard said. “And that’s not it. It’s because we’ve had two generations of kids grow up where the only affluent kids could play a game that legitimately costs no money and costs very little space to play.”
Within the District, there are organizations that seek to reduce the effects of inequality on access to youth sports. Among them is Leonard’s initiative with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, called the Boys and Girls Club Athletic Association (BGCAA), which started with a simple goal: eliminating financial barriers to youth sports participation.
The BGCAA is an organization of eight Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington that compete in four different sports over three seasons. The clubs involved include those from Germantown, Prince George’s County, and Southeast Washington, drawing from a diverse geographic and socioeconomic range.
“It’s a really beautiful experience for kids from all over the area to compete,” Leonard said. “They do it for $20 a season and no kid is turned away.”
Hayes described the Washington Nationals Academy as an organization actively working to widen access to baseball in the District. He also mentioned District Sports, a recreational soccer league that raises money for athletic programs and keeps costs low.
Organizers are also tackling the prohibitive cost of equipment. Max Levitt is the founder and executive director of Leveling the Playing Field, an organization that redistributes used sporting equipment to a host of different programs and schools in the Washington area. Levitt likens his initiative to a food bank, where organizations that pass an initial application and site visit are welcome to visit their warehouse to routinely pick out sports gear.
“If they can come to us and save $20,000 on equipment every year and just cut out that expense, then it’s a heck of a lot easier to keep your registration fees at an affordable rate,” Levitt said.
Levitt pointed out that his organization distributes not only to programs that are directly sports related, but also those that use sports as a backdrop. Oftentimes, sports can be used as a hook to bring in participants and address pressing topics. Levitt offered up the example of a sex education and drug prevention initiative at the Latin American Youth Center in Langley Park, Maryland.
“It wasn’t a sports program at all, and they launched the program, got the funding, and no one was coming,” Levitt said. “For obvious reasons to me, it was very difficult to convince kids to go to some development program in their neighborhood.”
However, once the center introduced a soccer team, with the stipulation that participants had to attend the center’s educational programs in order to play, registration and attendance went through the roof. In fact, the center had to go back for even more funding. Levitt’s story emphasizes that there doesn’t have to be a “silver bullet” to reduce inequity in access to youth sports. Modest, targeted solutions have the potential to ameliorate inequality while remaining financially feasible. At the same time, Levitt thinks that for-profit youth sports organizations need to be held accountable, and contribute to solving the problems that they, in part, have created.
“Why can’t they provide more scholarship opportunities to the needy kids?” Levitt asked. “While I think what we’re doing is important, the solution is going to be the private sector taking on the responsibility and starting to take on registration fees, and frankly not being so greedy.”
Fortunately, there is evidence that individuals are not only making youth sports more accessible, but also helping kids build a future beyond sports. Look no further than Durant, the pride of Prince George’s County, who has donated over $50,000 to the Seat Pleasant Activities Center and recently committed $10 million to the county’s public schools in partnership with a program called College Track that seeks to help disadvantaged youth.
Durant knows firsthand the effect that sports have on kids, but not just from his perch as a professional athlete. He remembers his first day playing in Seat Pleasant, and how it was love at first sight.
“You step into the gym, and it’s just this euphoric feeling,” Durant said in an interview with ESPN last month. “That’s what you need to feel at an early age. You need to have those emotions.”