Pandemic Heightens Need for Access, Equity in Youth Sports

With the opening kickoff of football season only days away, millions of fans nationwide will be excited to see the heated competition on the field once again. But the roar of the crowd will drown out a larger threat to kids in Central Texas and across the country, as participation in youth sports plummets along with regular daily physical activity.

Participation in sports of all types had just begun to recover from a decade-long slide, according to the Aspen Institute’s “State of Play 2020” report. But now the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare fundamental flaws in our community sports system and threatening to push those numbers off a cliff.

So at a time when debates are raging and laws are being proposed about who can participate in a particular sport, the question we should be asking is, “How can we create more access and equity for kids in sports?”

I’ve seen first-hand the magic that happens when barriers to participation are removed. In July, I had the honor of visiting the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where I received a Breaking Barriers Award from the Women’s Football Alliance.

In addition to my role as President & CEO at the YMCA of Austin, I directed a feature documentary film called Open Field that provides an epic journey into the heart of professional women’s football. At the awards ceremony, I joined a distinguished group representing the biggest names in women’s football.

From the first-ever female college football coach to the first woman coach to win the Super Bowl, these women have set the standard that women both belong and excel in football.

As I stood on the field, I was able to draw a direct connection to our work at the Y. We want to enable all kids to realize the benefits of playing sports, not just athletes of a particular gender or skill level. We want to help kids learn life lessons, build character and leadership skills. But there are two systemic challenges: access and equity.

Today, kids are funneled into select programs and private coaching. And, although that’s a great opportunity for some kids. It’s not for all kids.

But organizations like the Y are working to level the playing field, pun intended, to give kids access, regardless of skill level or ability to pay. We keep our fees affordable and provide financial assistance when needed.

We’re also committed to engaging kids of all gender identities and expressions in sports, which is why all of our programs at the Austin Y are co-ed. You’ll find girls playing alongside boys in flag football, just as you will find boys playing on volleyball teams.

Talking to athletes like Sami Grisafe, a two-time world champion and MVP quarterback who was also the first female quarterback to play in a Division I High School Football Game in California, I learned that we all play sports for the same reasons: for the love of the game, the physical challenge, the camaraderie, and the thrill of competition.

It’s essential that we have an inclusive society that’s providing opportunities. I recently attended a community conversation hosted by Austin FC and the 4ATX Foundation focused on creating welcoming spaces for young LGBTQIA+ athletes. Even though the Y has been serving Austin kids for more than six decades, I was reminded that inclusivity is something we’re continually working toward; a process, not a destination. We have to start from the ground up and ask the extra question, examine our policies, how we’re training our coaches, and the kinds of character values that we’re teaching our kids.

We can’t guarantee that a program like Y Youth Sports will produce the next superstar. But the lessons that sports teach will most certainly forge a new generation of respectful, honest, responsible, and caring adults. 

We know that this pandemic will pass, thanks to vaccines and responsible behavior. When it does, we want to ensure that our sports system is ready to provide access for ALL kids so they can realize the full range of benefits that sports can deliver.

Kathy Kuras is President & CEO of the YMCA of Austin and director of the feature documentary film Open Field.

All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer. Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@austinymca.org

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