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Fighting Against ‘Pay to Play’ Sports

A barrier-breaking former college athlete who hates the “economic meritocracy” that keeps kids from playing sports, says getting more youth involved “breeds understanding and racial balance.”

Darryl Hill, president and founder of Kids Play USA Foundation, is working to get more youth involved in football, baseball, softball, soccer, wrestling and lacrosse. 
National Journal
Darryl Hill
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Darryl Hill
Jan. 31, 2014, 4:20 a.m.

Darryl Hill, who in the early 1960s be­came the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an to play for the Nav­al Academy and later the first to play in the ACC, thinks it’s a trav­esty that more young­sters don’t play sports, es­pe­cially giv­en the rate of child­hood obesity across Amer­ica and the proven long-term be­ne­fits of ath­let­ics and com­pet­i­tion.

Last Janu­ary, Hill, 69, es­tab­lished Kids Play USA, based in Laurel, Md. On the found­a­tion’s web­site, which fea­tures plen­ti­ful stat­ist­ics on the be­ne­fits of sports, he say, “Fifty years ago, I fought to elim­in­ate ra­cial dis­crim­in­a­tion in col­lege ath­let­ics so that all young people could have an op­por­tun­ity to play varsity sports at any col­lege or uni­versity. Now “¦ I am work­ing to elim­in­ate eco­nom­ic dis­crim­in­a­tion in youth sports so that all chil­dren can have an op­por­tun­ity to play for any or­gan­ized youth or school team.”

This week, the Mary­land State House honored Hill, a standout wide re­ceiv­er for the Uni­versity of Mary­land, as a bar­ri­er-break­er and an ad­voc­ate for youth sports. Said House Speak­er Mi­chael Busch, “Darryl Hill is to South­ern col­lege foot­ball what Jack­ie Robin­son is to base­ball.”

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

It came to my at­ten­tion a couple of years ago from a busi­ness col­league of mine in Loudoun County, Va., that a couple of friends of her teen­age son had not been able to play on his base­ball team be­cause they couldn’t af­ford to pay the fees. I said, “What do you mean?” So I star­ted look­ing in­to that, and I found out youth sports are so com­mer­cial­ized these days that a large por­tion of young kids aren’t play­ing.

Sports is be­com­ing an eco­nom­ic mer­ito­cracy. Once, it was how ath­let­ic the kid was or how much ef­fort they put in, but now it’s eco­nom­ic. The kid whose daddy can write the check gets to play. We want to make it so any kid can play. Our main sports are base­ball, and soft­ball, boys’ and girls’ lacrosse, soc­cer, field hockey, wrest­ling, and foot­ball, and maybe track and field. Ba­sic­ally kids 8 to 14 are at the heart of our tar­get, though we can go a bit young­er or older.

I strongly, strongly op­pose the no­tion that Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans or low-in­come kids don’t play be­cause they don’t like it. I think chil­dren will play any game in any sport, giv­en an op­por­tun­ity to play. They don’t play be­cause they can’t af­ford to play.

I think sports are an in­teg­ral part of our so­ci­ety, not only to the in­di­vidu­als who play but to the com­munity in which they live. Sports brings kids to­geth­er, it breeds un­der­stand­ing and ra­cial bal­ance. And then the young people who play are typ­ic­ally just bet­ter cit­izens top to bot­tom — less likely to drop out of school, do drugs, get preg­nant, be touched by the law. One of the most start­ling stat­ist­ics I’ve read is a study of fe­male ex­ec­ut­ives in For­tune 500 top com­pan­ies [in which] up­ward of 90 per­cent had played high school sports, which speaks volumes on what sports do.

Sports teach people ca­marader­ie, time man­age­ment, win­ning and los­ing, bal­ance, and team­work, and pa­tience, be­ing more as­sert­ive, more ag­gress­ive. The list goes on and on.

On the down­side, if a kid is idle, we know where that can of­ten lead — and not just to bad health and obesity but to oth­er an­ti­so­cial be­ha­vi­or. That’s par­tic­u­larly telling in the un­der­served com­munit­ies, but they’re the ones be­ing im­pacted the most by the com­mer­cial­iz­a­tion of youth sports.

The num­ber of kids who played sports 15 years ago has fallen off by a start­ling num­ber of 50 per­cent. So twice as many kids are stand­ing on the corner now from just 15 years ago. And that num­ber is get­ting big­ger and big­ger.

Sports budget are slashed by loc­al gov­ern­ment and by schools. It’s nice to em­phas­ize edu­ca­tion, but phys­ic­al de­vel­op­ment is im­port­ant to grow­ing up. Cut­ting back sports and re­cre­ation de­part­ments’ budgets is short-sighted.

In 2011, 61 per­cent of high schools in the U.S. charged some sort of par­ti­cip­a­tion fee to play varsity sports. The un­der­served kid is go­ing to get hurt the most by this. A kid in a fam­ily with an ag­greg­ate in­come of less than $60,000 is four times more likely to be kept from play­ing be­cause of fees.

That’s be­cause of the phe­nomen­on of travel teams. Travel teams are typ­ic­ally teams com­prised of the bet­ter play­ers. In many sports, if you don’t play on the travel team, you’re miss­ing the chance to build the skill level to play at a high­er level. A kid who plays travel lacrosse or travel base­ball is much bet­ter pre­pared for high school [com­pet­i­tion].

Bas­ket­ball is the only sport that’s avail­able in terms of free play, with pickup games. Now if you want to judge sport by eth­ni­city, wheth­er we like it or not, there are some par­al­lels between race and in­come. Of the two sports mostly dom­in­ated or pop­u­lated by Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, bas­ket­ball is cheap and foot­ball is sub­sid­ized. No way you’re go­ing to enter ninth grade and start play­ing [com­pet­it­ive] base­ball, lacrosse, vol­ley­ball. And if you see the makeup of those teams, you see the [ra­cial and eth­nic] dif­fer­ence.

Our mis­sion is not to push kids up on the lad­der. Our mis­sion is to get the ab­so­lute num­ber of chil­dren play­ing sports up. It’s de­plor­ably down. And we have to do something about the adults who are pros­elyt­iz­ing for youth sports. It’s be­come an in­dustry. Why does a kid need to travel to Ken­tucky to play in a base­ball tour­na­ment or go to Con­necti­c­ut to play in a lacrosse game or go to Flor­ida to play soc­cer? This travel concept serves the [af­flu­ent] par­ent and those mak­ing money off the deal.

Our mis­sion isn’t to change that. Our goal, in a reas­on­able time — two to three years — is to make the state of Mary­land a mod­el state where every kid who wants to play or­gan­ized sports can play. No one is turned away from the sport they want to play, with some ex­tremely ex­pens­ive ex­cep­tions like ski­ing, ice hockey, or gym­nastics, where we don’t think we’d have the im­pact or re­turn. Golf and ten­nis have their own is­sues, but there are pro­grams to help kids like First Tee.

Our goal isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily to pre­pare kids for col­lege schol­ar­ships. Our goal is to get the av­er­age kid back on the play­ing field, play­ing sports. We’re fo­cus­ing on un­der­served kids, but not totally. You can have a middle-class fam­ily with three or four kids, each cost­ing a couple of grand a sea­son per sport. That’s just not doable. It’s not un­usu­al for me to come upon fam­il­ies spend­ing $10,000 a year [on youth sports], and that’s not in most people’s budget.

We work with grants and con­tri­bu­tions — and spon­sor­ships. We go first to all the sport leagues and ask if they’ll make room for kids who are un­der­served. We ask the team or league to waive or re­duce the fees. Then we go to equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers to con­trib­ute — the Wilsons and Spauld­ings of the world — and the re­tail­ers like Dick’s or Sports Au­thor­ity or Mod­ell’s, and we’re get­ting good sup­port there. Then there’s the found­a­tions like the Cal Rip­ken Found­a­tion which give equip­ment grants.

Hope­fully, we’ll be rep­lic­ated by oth­er groups in oth­er states. We’re go­ing to ex­pand in Mary­land and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., first, then to North­ern Vir­gin­ia and maybe Delaware and then the Mid-At­lantic. By that time, the Michigans and Neva­das will pick it up. I think this is a mod­el that works, and I think its doable. We’re not try­ing to cure can­cer with 50 years of re­search. This is an im­me­di­ately solv­able prob­lem, and there’s an ur­gency to solve it.


Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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