On the heels of several notable youth-sports stories in the news -- including stripping a Little League baseball team of its United States title after it was found that adults manipulated the league attendance boundaries -- the Aspen Institute is holding a Project Play Summit on Wednesday at the Newseum in Washington.
More than 300 people representing youth sports, national sports organizations, community recreation groups and educators, along with business and industry leaders, are set to meet to discuss the institute's recently released eight-point plan to get more American children participating in sports. The event also will be live-streamed.
Among the speakers at the session will be Steve Keener, the president and CEO of Little League baseball, former NBA player Jason Collins, Champion Women CEO and former Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Little League World Series sensation Mo'ne Davis, noted concussion specialist Dr. Robert Cantu and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Also on the agenda is Stephen Levin, a New York City councilman who is seeking to force youth football teams to have a doctor on the sideline for every game and full-contact practice.
Youth sports has made plenty of headlines recently. Jackie Robinson West Little League had its U.S. championship taken away this month after it was determined that league officials used a falsified boundary map to allow players from outside its geographic area to play on its team that eventually lost to Seoul, South Korea, in the tournament's title game. The team's coach was suspended, and a district administrator was removed from his position as well.
In January, a Boston University study indicated that football players who started the game before age 12 performed "significantly worse" on three measures -- estimated verbal IQ; executive function, which includes reasoning and planning; and memory impairment -- than those who started later. Researchers tested 42 retired NFL players between the ages of 40 and 69 and published their results in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
The Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program prepared a report, "Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game," which seeks to reimagine youth sports. It also intends to "recognize the benefits of unstructured play," according to Tom Farrey, the Aspen Institute's executive director of the sports and society program. (Farrey is also an investigative reporter for ESPN.)
Project Play was created by the Aspen Institute Sports and Society program in 2013 to "find ways to help all children in America become active through sports," according to the report. This is the first report from the group, which cited numbers saying that only 40 percent of children played a team sport regularly in 2013, down from 44.5 percent in 2008.
It noted that unstructured play on sandlots and in parks has declined as well, with more travel teams and fewer opportunities at local parks and community recreation facilities. Sports Facilities Advisory and Sports Facilities Management, a leading resource in sports-facility planning and management, noted recently that more than 1,000 public pools have closed across the country in recent years.
One goal of the project was to ensure that "every 12-year-old should have the ability, confidence and desire to be physically active for life." Project Play then outlined eight strategies it said can help every child become more active:
• Ask kids what they want. The report said that nine out of 10 children say fun is the main reason they participate in sports, while winning was 48th in a survey. It suggests that listening to children to create opportunities they want to participate in.
• Reintroduce free play. The report said that unstructured play opportunities deliver hours of physical activity without that being the stated goal. It acknowledged cultural shifts that have made playing less prominent but called for finding ways to increase it.
• Encourage sport sampling. Allowing children to play multiple sports gives them a chance to find the right sport.
• Revitalize in-town leagues. The increase in travel teams has corresponded with a decrease in children playing sports. The report calls for increasing the number and quality of offerings for recreational leagues.
• Think small. The report says not every sports complex has to be massive; find small parcels of land and use them. It suggests playing 3-on-3 basketball instead of full-court games.
• Design for development. Activities should be adapted for age levels, with the emphasis on fun regardless of age.
• Train all coaches. The report said fewer than 20 percent of the 6.5 million youth sport coaches in America are trained, and cited one study that said only 5 percent of young athletes who play for trained coaches quit the sport the next year compared with 26 percent who quit when playing for an untrained coach.
• Emphasize prevention. A study showed that nine of 10 parents have safety concerns for their children when they play sports. Making sports safe through rule changes and modifications, and getting the right information out to parents, can be vital.
The report concluded that youth sports needs to be part of the national public health conversation and encouraged multisport play for children through age 12, and called on parents, schools, cities, faith-based groups, the business community, the media and others to work together to provide opportunities for youngsters to embrace activity and sports.
Among the items on the agenda at Wednesday summit is a session on "what good looks like in youth sports [to kids]." It will be moderated by Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix and includes Davis. Keener will be on a plan discussion revitalizing in-town leagues. Cantu and Hogshead-Makar, along with Levin, will be part of a session on emphasizing prevention.
The report is based on an ESPN book, "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children," an account of the problems of youth sports and some underlying reasons for them. Farrey, who wrote the book, said the Aspen Institute project is designed to help stakeholders explore and identify potential solutions.