In the last five years, high school sports participation has fallen for the first time on record. The number of boys playing high school sports today is lower than in any year since 2007. While travel leagues are thriving, local leagues are flailing—for football, soccer, baseball, basketball ... you name it. And this is happening, of course, in a decade when young people are spending less time in the physical world, less time with their friends, less time moving around, and more time sitting hunched over a phone. So what’s going on, and what should we do? Today’s guests are Jason Gay, sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.
In the following excerpt, Derek, Jason Gay, and Tom Farrey discuss North Carolina Republicans’ attempts to ban participation trophies and why youth participation in sports is declining.
Derek Thompson: Jason, I want to start with you because I thought your framing of this issue was really, really smart. You start by looking at legislation in North Carolina to ban participation trophies. Tell me a little bit about why politicians are so mad about participation trophies.
Jason Gay: Well, participation trophies, we all know, are one of those perpetual issues. It comes up with some regularity. I would probably time it to the spring and fall sport seasons. And it is one of those red-meat topics of the culture war that never seems to go anywhere except become a place for people to take sides. But what struck me about this particular scenario, which was three legislators in North Carolina seeking to prohibit the use of participation trophies statewide, specifically banning trophies for anything other than stellar achievement in athletics, was really some of the work that Tom [Farrey] and his group with Aspen have been so convincing about over the years. Which is that the real problem with participation in youth sports is certainly not hardware, but the lack thereof.
Participation in youth sports is on the decline, has been on the decline for some time, and there are a myriad of very concerning factors and symptoms that will come up because of that. And so that was the thing that I really wanted to use this piece of legislation to call attention to, that it’s just a complete misread of what the crisis is in youth sports.
Thompson: And before we ask Tom to nerd out on all the numbers about exactly how youth sports is declining, Jason, why does this matter? Why should we care about the decline of youth sports in America?
Gay: Well, we should care because no cupboard should be without 14, 15 trophies, Derek. No. I mean, listen, the research is incredibly convincing over the years that participation in youth sports, and I mean just that, participating, being part of something, being part of a team, whether you are the backup to the backup right-fielder or the star superstar of the club, has enormous impact upon children’s self-esteem, upon their ability to achieve strong academic results. There are just really impressive bits of longitudinal data about positive outcomes for kids who participate in sports. And I haven’t even gotten to the whole aspect of being outside, and exercise, and exertion, and all those wonderful things. Fresh air and sunlight, Derek. We focus a lot on some of the negative things that happen in youth sports, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone, including most recently in the Journal. But there are a lot of great things about it and a lot of great coaches and a lot of great programs still. And so participation and getting kids out there, I feel, is a really vital part of childhood. And I’m not just being nostalgic for it.
Thompson: Yeah, we’ve had episodes on obesity. There’s been an increase in childhood obesity. We’ve had episodes on youth anxiety. And the argument that I am very persuaded by is that it’s not just about the fact that teens spend seven hours a day on their phones, five hours a day on social media. It’s that the day is only 24 hours long, so those five hours spent on their phones participating in social life through a screen are five hours not participating in being outside, being around people. And I’m very persuaded by the evidence that that trade-off of the physical world for the digital world is not good for teen mental health. Tom, let’s bring you in here. Put some numbers on this story. How dramatic is the decline in youth sports in America?
Tom Farrey: Well, we don’t exactly know, Derek, because there was really no data collected before 2008 that we can do apples to apples on. And in fact, the federal government didn’t start collecting data on this until 2016, 2017. But based upon the industry data, we know that in 2008, about 45 percent of kids were playing team sports on a regular basis. Then the economic recession hit, and it took a huge bite. And nobody even paid any attention to this. And it just fell off. Municipal park budgets were cut, programming went away. The travel team environment ramped up, things became privatized, and it fell down to about 37, 38 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 played sports in 2014 or so. Now since then, it’s kind of leveled off a bit. That’s when Project Play, which is our signature initiative, got started.
And a lot of the professional leagues, the Nikes, the Under Armours of the world, they all started digging into this access to sport issue, the coaching issue. People kind of woke up to it all. And things have leveled off. But the pandemic really took a huge bite. I mean, the latest data from the federal government shows that only 50.7 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 played sports or took a sports lesson or some sort in 2021. So in the middle of the pandemic. So filter that as you may, it’s pandemic data. But it’s still down from about, according to the federal government, about 50, 56, 57 percent pre-pandemic. So we’ll see where we net out, but generally the trends are flat to not good.
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: Jason Gay and Tom Farrey
Producer: Devon Manze