The National Federation of State High School Associations estimates that participation in high school sports exceeded 7.7 million in 2012 to 2013, increasing for the 24th consecutive year; a National Council for Youth Sports survey estimates that 60 million children participate in recreational youth sports each year. With so many kids engaged, youth sports present a unique opportunity for public health to include our youngest generation in valuing and prioritizing health.
Competitive sports reflect the most enduring and entrenched values in our society and the benefits of sports on population health are well established. The intrinsic value of exercise and emphasis on good nutrition are the most obvious factors, protecting against childhood obesity and creating good habits into adulthood, but research has also shown that kids who participate in sports are more likely to engage in health-related behaviors (e.g., eating fruits and vegetables) and less likely to smoke cigarettes or use illicit drugs. In addition, load-bearing exercise may improve bone density in childhood and protect against osteoporosis later in life.
Recent research has shown that competitive sports may provide lifelong benefits that can impact health, including greater leadership skills, self confidence, self respect, and an enhanced sense of social responsibility (e.g., donating to charity and volunteering)—traits that empower them and lead to better early-career job prospects and higher late-career attainment. Hilary Levey Friedman, author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, describes important life lessons as “Competitive Kid Capital”:
It is not difficult to see how someone with these traits would also be more successful at advocating for one’s own health, and scholars are taking note of the power of resiliency in prevention. Friedman also notes that after World War II, competitive sports began to be dominated by middle and upper classes. “Forces that have led to increasing inequality in education, the workplace, and other spheres have come to the world of play.” If kids in poorer communities are not afforded the same opportunities to participate in sports, it follows that children who do not have the benefit of building “Competitive Kid Capital” will be less equipped to break through cycles of poverty and inequality. An example of law stepping in to ensure that the benefits of sports participation extend to everyone is Title IX, which has gone a long way to enhancing opportunities for girls to play sports. Women’s participation in college athletics has grown from 15 percent in 1972 to 43 percent in 2001 and participation in high school sports has increased from 295,000 in 1971 to 2.8 million in 2002-2003.
Of course, the picture is not all rosy. In order to effectively use the power of sports in our culture to improve health, we have to address a number of issues, including player injuries and unruly parents. Concussions in youth sports and their potential impact on young athletes remains a real concern. And the recent emphasis on intense competition in youth sports (e.g., select and travel teams) has led to a phenomenon where kids are specializing in one sport and undergoing intensive training much earlier than ever before. Researchers believe this is leading to more overuse injuries and long-term health consequences. Of course, travel teams are also expensive; the emphasis on elite play for highly skilled young athletes may stifle access for kids whose families can’t afford such opportunities.
Effective policymaking and implementation and evaluation of laws will play a critical role in making sports safer and ensuring that the benefits of sports extend to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. All 50 states and D.C. have passed some form of youth sports concussion law, and some states have begun to look at other ways of making youth sports safer. If state legislative activity is a barometer for evolving societal values, then the U.S. is already beginning to turn the ship towards a sports culture that values the health of athletes at all levels.
In the short term, I think we’ll continue to see kids specializing in single sports younger and younger until the harms of doing so become as obvious and evidence-backed as concussion risks have become. I think the phenomenon of expensive travel sports will likewise continue until society decides to level the playing field and make more opportunities for athletic competition available to all kids, regardless of socio-economic status. Eventually, I think we will follow Archie Manning and Tom Brady Sr.’s lead and decide that our kids don’t need to play tackle football until middle or even high school; flag football teaches the necessary skills. (Pioneering sports concussion researcher Robert Cantu puts it this way. “If they don’t have underarm hair yet, then no tackling.”)
Sports can give our kids some great tools—the Competitive Kid Capital—to help them make choices that lead to healthy lives. Effective development and implementation of evidence-based law and policy will help us to leverage the power of sports in our culture while mitigating their risks—a win-win situation.
This post was prepared by Kerri McGowan Lowrey, Deputy Director, the Network for Public Health Law — Eastern Region at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.