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Equity in Youth Sports

Who gets to play?

It can start young. You sign your four-year-old up for soccer in the hopes that he can run out some of his extra energy. You notice he’s not only the fastest on the field — he’s the fastest on the field by a lot. He’s still the fastest at five, and at six the gap between him and his teammates seems to be getting even larger. Now you’re thinking maybe you’ve got a prodigy on your hands; the next Roy Kent from “Ted Lasso,” the kid who’s clearly going to get a full ride to college in 12 short years. You know the odds are long; NCAA Division I and Division II schools combined give out a maximum of just over 100,000 athletic scholarships. But how do you make sure your child is one of those 100,000?

The answer isn’t what you think.

Travel Teams, Private Coaches, and Camps

It seems that the prevailing wisdom is to sink as much money as possible into your child’s athletic endeavors: hundreds of dollars and even more hours on interstate tournaments, summer camps, winter workouts, professional video editors to create highlight reels to send to colleges. However, the shortest, easiest thing to remember is that if your child is an athlete gifted enough to get any athletic scholarship at the college level, the colleges already know about him or her by the 8th or 9th grade.

“It varies from sport to sport, but I say this a lot: If you are good enough, we will find you,” said Paul Thornton, Assistant Track and Field Coach at the Division I University of Kansas. “Some runners do these travel tournaments in the summer, but can be a big pill for a family to swallow to pay $4,000 on a vacation so their kid can run in a track meet. We usually find athletes at their respective state track and field championships.”

“Track and field is a sport where you can look at the athlete’s timed events, you can look at the distances they’re throwing in field events,” said Tamara Dunlap-Elkins, Assistant Head Coach for the Severn Highsteppers, a track and field team associated with the Severn Athletic Club. “The parents can look exactly at what their child is doing, and sometimes it melts them down, honestly. But it’s easy to compare their child’s times to the times you want to see” if a student has higher ambitions. Coach Dunlap-Elkins should know what success looks like — the Highsteppers sent 24 athletes to the AAU Junior Olympics this past summer, with several athletes landing podium spots.

Yes, there are recruitment services that can connect players with college coaches, shoot professional-style highlight reels, and make you feel like you’re giving your kid that little extra edge that might get them on the field. It remains to be seen, though, how helpful such services actually are. If your child is getting varsity-level playing time early in his high school career, is making All- State or All-Region teams (even “just” at the public school level), and is achieving other athletic successes, they’ll be on college coaches’ radars. A highlight reel is a good idea, but with every parent carrying a camera in their pocket and every high schooler being well-versed in video editing (see? TikTok does come in handy), that can be handled at home for free. And since a student must be in good academic standing to get a college athletics scholarship —and the fact that there are more academic scholarships than athletic ones out there— spending time hitting the books might help more than hitting the weight room.

Student Athletes from left to right Quentin, 11, Rugby for South River Youth Association. Jaeden Clark, Soccer, Basketball and Lax for Key School. Ryleigh Moore, 11, Cheer for Naptown Panthers. Léana, 14, Volleyball for St. Johns. Paul L.A Tue IV, 10, Football for Kent County Spartans. Mia Taylor, 16, Cheer for Meade High. Anya Rose Michelle, 17, Ice Hockey for Annapolis High.

The choice of sports matters tremendously when it comes to cost. A 2019 survey from Project Play, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, found that on average ice hockey parents reported spending the most in a season, with skiing, field hockey, gymnastics, and lacrosse rounding out the top five. On average, sports families reported paying $693 per child, per sport in a year, with the greatest expense of all being travel. Some sports are cheaper— for example, skateboarding, cross-
country, and basketball — but all of those require safe places to play, practice, and compete, which can be difficult in lower-income communities. And while 46% of kids from homes with incomes greater than $100,000 a year, only 28% of children from homes with incomes under $25,000 a year play sports. So the question remains: Do you have to pay to play?

“We Do Not Turn Anyone Away”

Most local sports leagues do have fees; uniforms, field upkeep, and referees all cost money. But out of the eight Anne Arundel-area sports leagues, both public and private, that were contacted for this article, none would turn a student athlete away based on their inability to pay.

“We’re blessed with a great parent base, and a lot of them say ‘I’m paying for my kid; if you get another kid who can’t pay, I can cover them,’” said Paul Tue, Commissioner of the Kent County Spartans Football and Cheer. “We know we’re going to have kids who are going to play for free every year, and we want to find donors where we can make it completely free for any kid who wants to play — that’s our goal for 2022.” Other organizations use fundraisers, grants, sponsorships, and anything else it takes so that every athlete can take the field.

One barrier to access in Anne Arundel County, ironically, lies in public school sports teams. Even before the pandemic created a bus driver shortage, not all local schools offered regular “activity buses,” which can take students home after an athletics practice (or a theater rehearsal or club meeting). If a student can’t yet drive, doesn’t have a car, or doesn’t have parents who can pick them up, that student has no way home. And without a robust public transportation system, access to county-sponsored recreational teams or even facilities can prove difficult for youth athletes who simply can’t find a ride.

What are You Playing For?

If a college scholarship is the only reason—or even a major reason—why your child is playing sports, take a deep breath, a step back, and look at the big picture. The statistics are clear: Playing sports at any level is good at any age, and especially for young people. Youth athletes, especially those who continue past age 15, are more likely to go to college, are more likely to maintain a healthy weight into early adulthood, and are less likely to smoke, drink, or use drugs. There’s more to it, though. “The social interaction they get from working with other kids is one of the best things about sports,” said Tue. “A kid can grow up in a neighborhood where everyone looks like him, and then he comes to practice and half his team is Black, or half his team is white—now he thinks ‘I have to learn about these kids.’”

“Our organization is one of equity,” said Stephen Lloyd, Severn Athletic Club’s track and field commissioner. “We are inclusive. All of these kids are approaching important milestones not only in their physical development, but in their emotional development, and we like to address those issues.

Young athletes can spot the benefits for themselves. “I remember a game where we had no subs, so it was nine girls playing the entire game,” said Elizabeth Quintero, a 13-year-old soccer player who plays in the South County Youth Association. “It was like 90 degrees outside, we were getting so hot, I had an asthma attack, and everything was crazy. But afterwards, we got named ‘Team No-Quit.’ We put it on headbands and made shirts and everything, and it made me feel really good.”
“Wins are nice, but success can be measured in many ways,” said Bruce Hunter, one of the Highsteppers’ head coaches. “We measure in elevation of self-esteem, in elevation of confidence— and that goes a long way.”

By Kristen Page-Kirby

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