Why Michelle Obama, others are championing more access to sports for kids

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Although participation in team sports rose slightly last year among children ages 6 to 12, from 37.3 percent in 2014 to 40 percent in 2015, the percentage of children of the same age who were active through sport on a regular basis fell again, to 26.6 percent.

That was one takeaway from this week's Project Play Summit, a gathering of more than 450 community leaders, sports advocates, corporate representatives and researchers to examine the decline in activity levels among children in the United States, discuss actionable solutions and highlight programs aimed at broadening access to sports.

The Aspen Institute's youth sports initiative, Project Play, released a draft of its annual State of Play report, which credited income as being the strongest differentiator in participation numbers. According to the report, which culled data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and Sports Marketing Surveys, only one in five children ages 6-12 from homes with an income of less than $25,000 were active through sport.

"We're not developing our next generation of kids and competitors," First Lady Michelle Obama said during a 45-minute conversation with her brother, ESPN analyst Craig Robinson, which was moderated by ESPN's Michael Wilbon. All three panelists were raised in South Side, Chicago, and discussed the astonishing differences they see in their neighborhood today. "We're missing out on a whole generation of kids who could have been like me or Craig," Obama said. "But they don't have the opportunity."

The First Lady's comments were open, reflective and perhaps her most pointed on the importance of play in closing the opportunity gap, and she called upon corporate America to invest in the next generation and shift the burden of paying for play away from families.

Watch: Full interview with Michelle Obama, Craig Robinson and Michael Wilbon

"It is absolutely imperative for corporate America to go into schools and put gym and sports back in," she said. "Whatever the dollar figure is, as a society, as taxpayers and as corporate America, we should figure out how much that costs and then pay for it. Period."

In 2010, Obama launched the Let's Move initiative with a focus on nutrition education and the objective of solving the problem of obesity within a generation. But Tuesday, she widened that conversation to include the pitfalls of early sports specialization, a need to return physical education to schools and the dangers of continuing to churn out generations of children absent of the social skills learned through play.

"If you put a bunch of kids out in a field, today, I don't think they'd know what to do," Obama said. "When we look at crime rates, these are a bunch of kids who are unsupervised and don't know how to play. And then we give them a gun. It's not complicated."

Throughout the daylong event, panelists discussed the need for more free play and safe play spaces, plans for injury prevention and how to train coaches to train the hardest kids to reach. Tennis champion and human rights activist Billie Jean King emphasized the need for more women in coaching and more quality, trained coaches in youth sports.

"If I only had the racket and access to the park, I wouldn't have gone into the court," King said. "It's about the people."

For Project Play's "State of Play" address, a team from the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center at Carnegie Melon University used computational simulation models to determine the potential benefits of increasing the physical activity of children. They simulated the physical activity behaviors of kids between the years 2010 and 2020 and projected scenarios where 50 percent, 75 percent and 100 percent of U.S. children met the threshold of being "active to a healthy level" or spending 25 minutes engaging in physical activity three times per week, as defined by the Physical Activity Council/Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

Among the group's predictions: If the percentage of children in the U.S. who maintain an active to healthy level of activity increased to 50 percent, there would be 243,830 fewer overweight and obese youth and direct medical cost savings of $20 billion annually. If 100 percent of children met the requirement, those numbers would jump to 991,019 kids and $26 billion saved.

A final version of the "State of Play" report will be released in the coming weeks, incorporating insights and crowd polling from the summit. At the conclusion of the day, organizations with initiatives aimed at addressing these disparities in the coming year were highlighted, including Under Armour and the YMCA.

"We need a bigger effort to make accessible play spaces that are safe," said Scott Dane of Capital Area Soccer League in Lansing, Mich. "We built a mini turf soccer field in downtown Lansing that is walled and lit with LED energy efficient lights and it's free and openly accessible. It's in an open area three blocks from the capital. We've had zero vandalism and kids are playing. They just play."