The Power of the Permit

February 1, 2016, Department, by David Tyahla

Proper and pragmatic management of permit usage of your fields and facilities can benefit everyone in your community. The 60 million reasons to use it to ensure a safe, equitable and enjoyable sports experience for the youth of your community

Following is the first in a series of articles highlighting the work of the Aspen Institute’s Sport and Society Program and its Project Play initiative: in particular, its recommendation to local governments to use the “Power of the Permit” in an effort to promote equitable, safe and enjoyable sports experiences for all youth, in every community. This column provides background on and defines the issue. Future columns will share examples of policies national youth sports organizations have put in place that help further the standard of safe and equitable participation in youth sports, as well as allow you to hear from recognized leaders in the field.


NRPA has been fortunate to participate in the Aspen Institute’s Sport and Society Program. Sports journalist Tom Farrey — now the Sport and Society Program’s executive director — realized that the needs of America’s children were not being met, that children need to be active and enjoy the many benefits of playing sports and that society was placing too many barriers in the way of youth participation.   

Following two years of roundtables and dialogue with more than 250 leaders and stakeholders, the Institute released its initial report in 2015, titled Sport for All Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game. The report provides an ambitious vision and calls for “reimagining organized youth sports” by prioritizing inclusion and health benefits, while also acknowledging the value of unstructured (pick-up) play.    

The report also lays out for decisionmakers strategies to remove the numerous barriers to participation, which impact all youth — whether they come from lower-income families and cannot afford to pay to play, or they suffer from the win-at-all-costs mentality that weeds out and excludes youth of moderate skills. The recommendations are simple and direct, including asking kids what they want, encouraging sports sampling at a young age, focusing on age- and skill-appropriate development and “training the trainers,” ensuring all coaches, especially the thousands of volunteers who make youth sports happen in every community, are given the basic tools to teach, mentor and see the potential in every child. Among these recommendations is one that stands out most to the park and recreation community — the Power of the Permit.

At NRPA’s 2015 Conference in Las Vegas, Farrey spoke about the report and Project Play’s vision for structural change in youth sports. He spent the majority of his time talking directly to the park and recreation community and the critical role we must play if we’re serious about removing the barriers so that all children can participate and benefit from youth sports. The issue of the Power of the Permit resonated with everyone in attendance. 

Power of the Permit  

University of Missouri School of Law Professor Douglas E. Abrams is often cited as the authority on this topic and has written extensively on it. Simply stated, Power of the Permit refers to the “recognized authority of government agencies to manage public property, including public sports and recreation venues.” The value of this cannot be understated. Two key areas where this impacts parks and recreation are safety and equity.  

The National Council on Youth Sports reports that more than 44 million boys and girls are participating in organized youth sports today, with the total registered participants, including adult coaches, officials and administrators, topping out above 60 million. That’s 60 million reasons why each park and recreation agency needs to pay attention to how it allocates its field and facility usage to the local community.

The safety-related concerns are obvious — from risk management and background screenings of the adults who operate your fields and facilities and may come in contact with young participants in the sports programs, to having adult coaches and officials qualified to administer basic first aid. Coaches and officials should also have basic training and guidelines for identifying possible head and brain injuries suffered by athletes and knowing when to remove them from play. It’s important to note that while almost every state now has a concussion safety policy for scholastic sports, not all apply these same standards to local youth sports and recreation programs.   

Looking out for the safety and well-being of young athletes even pertains to ensuring all coaches receive adequate training in age- and skill-appropriate instruction in their sport. Namely, a soccer coach licensed to manage professionals may know all of the technical and tactical aspects of the game, but does he or she understand how to teach the basics to a 7-year-old playing the game for the first time, especially now that national youth soccer organizations are mandating that kids play small-sided games with no goalkeepers? 

The equity issue is about protecting equal access and opportunity for all children to play. With more than 44 million young people already involved in organized youth sports — better than half of all people under the age of 18 in America — the concern over how we allocate use of existing resources, including playing fields and indoor facilities, across all interested parties and in a fair manner will only increase in the future.    

Are the organizations to which you’re allocating field and facility usage providing opportunities for all boys and girls to participate, or are they focusing their efforts primarily on developing “elite” athletes and winning competitions over the personal (and sports) development of their young athletes? Do they weed out children before they even have a chance to develop skills and, most of all, a love for the game?

Much is being written about how proper and pragmatic management of permit usage of your fields and facilities can benefit everyone in your community. This includes how to utilize local citizen advocates on your public park and recreation (or sports) boards to create strong permitting standards for the facility use.  

Future columns will focus on examples of the positive steps national sports organizations are taking to train the adults charged with coaching our kids in a manner that promotes positive youth development and, most of all, safety. We’ll also share cases where local agencies have used the Power of the Permit to institute high standards for coaching, safety and equitable access for youth in their community.

Click here to learn more about the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative.


David Tyahla is NRPA’s Senior Government Affairs Manager.