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Park and recreation agencies embrace a more fair, just and inclusive model for youth sports leagues
In an odd way, David Andreatta found himself enjoying life as a youth sports parent in Rochester, New York, during the early months of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Andreatta discovered that his family priorities changed for the better. His children’s travel sports teams were shut down, so the family shared more dinners together instead of racing to and from practices and games almost every night of the week. His kids eventually rediscovered their love of sports by playing outside through free play, a lost art in recent years in the United States.
But despite how much Andreatta wishes he and other parents would stick with this slower routine when it’s safe to return to organized sports, he doubts he will. The reason: Andreatta doesn’t believe another quality alternative to travel sports exists where he lives.
“I hope that recreational leagues — the leagues that were the foundation of youth sports for so many years before tourism bureaus and for-profit organizations got involved — can step up their efforts and offer a level of play that’s competitive enough, but also sane enough that people can participate…,” Andreatta says. “This is a big opportunity for recreational leagues to step up.”
Embracing Inclusivity in Youth Sports
Park and recreation professionals say that the coronavirus response and recovery provide them with a chance to emerge as key leaders in ensuring a more fair, just and inclusive model of youth sports.
In a recent survey by NRPA, the report for which will be released in November of 2020, 86 percent of park and recreation professionals say their role should include identifying inequities in access to youth sports. They also identify that they should provide coach training on safety and health for anyone using their sports facilities (71 percent) and convene partners to address access gaps to youth sports (71 percent).
Park and recreation professionals expressed less interest in managing permits for other youth sports organizations (43 percent), convening youth to help design the delivery of youth sports (41 percent), and administering all youth sports in the community (21 percent). The most significant challenges they cited in providing community-based youth sports activities: not enough volunteer coaches (59 percent) and competing with travel sports leagues (49 percent).
“This is the only country in the world where you have to spend a boatload of money and go play all over the country,” Orlando (Florida) Mayor Buddy Dyer says. “If you’re in Spain, you’re just playing in towns around you.… I do think it’s a municipal government’s responsibility to try to make sports available for every child.”
Overcoming Financial Obstacles
Many park and recreation officials say they are rethinking how they deliver youth sports. But doing so comes as many face significant budget cuts and uncertainty about when and how to return to play.
Nationally, more than half of park and recreation professionals (58 percent) expect COVID-19 to have a significant, detrimental impact on fall programming, according to the NRPA survey. Only 10 percent expect mild or no impact.
“The biggest challenge we’re struggling with [are] the finances,” says Josh Medeiros, superintendent of the city of Bristol (Connecticut) Department of Parks, Recreation, Youth and Community Services. “We’ve had to modify a lot of our programs and buy extra protective equipment. How do we afford it without jacking up the price, which then hurts access for kids in lower-income families?”
Bristol is creating a new plan for parks to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act since many of its sites are not accessible to people with disabilities. The city also created a diversity, equity and inclusivity committee that is considering creating a website in Spanish to meet the needs of Bristol’s large Hispanic community. The committee also wants to recruit more diverse coaches and instructors who better represent the communities where they will be working.
“For any department to be inclusive, it has to embrace inclusivity as a mission and then start tackling it in all the areas that touch on it,” Medeiros says.
An Opportunity for Creativity
In Columbus, Ohio, the city’s 27 recreation centers were closed through the summer, making it nearly impossible for Jack Castle, recreation and parks administrative coordinator, to register kids for fall sports. So, he pivoted away from league registration to offering the community a lot of free programming. Instead of offering a fall soccer league, Columbus is providing soccer skills classes. Instead of only having five or six soccer balls for 30 kids, now there are 30 balls for 30 kids at each recreation center.
“We want to build confidence back up with parents that this is where you want your kids to be,” says Castle, who created committees of youth and adults to hear community ideas. “My message on a daily basis to my staff is that this is an opportunity. Let’s [not] just rest on what we’ve done in the past. Let’s take this downtime and think of new, creative ways to get people involved.”
Two years ago, Columbus brought its community centers under one umbrella in hopes of creating greater equity. Each center used to have wide-ranging costs and services. Now the department sets the fees and benefits. By 2022, Castle hopes to have coaching curriculum for every sport the city offers — including the new addition of esports — so every community center teaches kids the same way.
The evolution to a centralized model caused Castle to quickly notice vast differences in what families can afford for sports. The recreation and parks department developed a youth sports scholarship subsidized by corporate donations, sponsorships and the city budget. In 2019, the first year of the scholarship, $42,000 in aid went to families. “We all need to look at those kinds of scholarships to promote equity,” Castle says.
The Impact on Parks and Recreation
In Orlando, the city actually plans to increase its parks and recreation budget by 15 percent, Dyer says. Because the government largely relies on property taxes, increased property values can lead to more available funding for park and recreation agencies. In August, for example, Orlando broke ground on construction of the Grand Avenue Neighborhood Center and Park in a historically African American community.
The renovation project will include a gymnasium and a 12-acre park with fitness equipment and multiple playgrounds. NRPA is facilitating the work, which is expected to be completed in fall 2020, as part of its Parks Build Community project. Grand Avenue Neighborhood Center and Park will allow Orlando to expand its recreation and sports programming for kids, about 85 percent of whom live in low-income households.
Clifford Charlton, the city of Orlando’s athletics district manager, worries about high costs imposed on inner-city families from for-profit sports organizations. Other local football programs charge up to $200 per child, compared to city fees of $30. As of August, the city had delayed the start of football season due to COVID-19 and Charlton personally did not think it should be played at all.
“If I’m not having a season this year and the parents want their kids to play football, these kids are probably going to play for another organization,” Charlton says. “I’m OK with waiting and seeing what happens [to COVID-19].”
Even before the pandemic, Charlton says he constantly tried to change public perception that the best youth football coaches are in private programs, not in parks and recreation leagues.
“At the end of the day, this is only recreational and it’s honing and starting kids’ familiarity with the sport,” says Charlton, a former college football and NFL player. “Kids don’t really know who and what they are until they get to high school.”
Inclusivity Builds Confidence
For more than five years, Nate Baldwin led youth sports programming for the Appleton (Wisconsin) Parks and Recreation Department. The department’s youth participation in four sports (basketball, baseball, soccer and flag football) increased by 70 percent from 2014 until early 2020, including gains of 188 percent in basketball and more than 100 percent in baseball.
Baldwin grew community-based participation by focusing on quality programming and not ceding ground to travel teams. While travel teams spun inclusion at recreation programs as a negative, Baldwin opted to sell it as a strength. His pitch: Regardless of someone’s financial background, ability, size or experience level, there was a place for that child in recreation programming.
“We have some really talented players,” Baldwin says. “But inclusion means giving kids some really unique ways to develop their confidence, sense of empathy, mentorship capability and leadership instead of participating in a program where you’re one of 10 clones.”
Baldwin, who no longer works at Appleton, sees a unique opportunity for parks and recreation departments to play a major role in establishing a more inclusive youth sports model.
“They might get the initial wave of kids who can’t afford the elite sports experience,” he says. “But if they don’t take this seriously and provide an experience to stick around for, that’s going to be short lived. I think there will be a gravitation back to community-based leagues and they need to seize on that opportunity.”
A Turning Point
Myisha Owens, the coordinator of Broadview Park District in Illinois and the mom of a 13-year-old girl who plays multiple sports, understands firsthand this opportunity for greater inclusion. Broadview Park District, which operates seven parks and three facilities, is opened for kids who need access to WiFi for virtual learning during the pandemic. It’s a partnership with the local schools, which includes lunches and breakfast, and a way to help working parents.
“We’re not only the park district, we’re the school,” Owens says. “Once the school day is over, they’ll still have recreation with [park district staff].”
Since the pandemic started, Owens has noticed many more kids utilizing parks. They’re walking, riding bikes, exercising on fields, shooting hoops, jumping rope and riding skateboards.
“We used to beg and plead for people to come out and get involved, and a lot of parents said their kids didn’t want to come because they were playing video games and watching YouTube,” Owens says. “We were asking, ‘What can we do for you?’ Now they’re asking us what we have for them.”
Jon Solomon is Editorial Director of the Aspen Institute's Project Play initiative.