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The Empty Playground

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The Empty Playground

Even as the world celebrates soccer as a “people’s game,” youth sports are disappearing in America’s inner-city precincts. November 30, 2022
Arts and Culture
Cities

Global sporting events like the World Cup generate a fair amount of social commentary. This year’s tournament has produced no shortage of controversy off the pitch, ranging from heated debate on the human-rights record of host nation Qatar to protests over U.S. soccer officials’ alteration of the Iranian flag in social media posts.

Here in the U.S., a familiar issue has resurfaced: whether the country has struggled for years to measure up in the men’s World Cup in part because the game has evolved into what critics deem an “upper class” American sport, without enough effort by the game’s organizers to promote it in inner cities. Despite the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the U.S. national team, this allegation has appeared over the years in headlines like, “It’s only working for the white kids,” “Youth soccer’s imbalance,” and “Soccer in the inner cities, the missing link.” Critics often compare soccer in the U.S. unfavorably with basketball and American football, sports where the inner-city dream of stardom is reportedly still alive.

The problem with much of this talk is that it masks deeper issues that can’t be solved simply by building more fields and sponsoring more teams. Youth participation in every sport is declining in urban neighborhoods. Even basketball is increasingly middle class and upper class in nature. Unsettling changes in inner-city communities, including the breakup of families, an absence of fathers, and the failures of institutions like urban public schools underlie the problem.

LeBron James got at the heart of the issue several years ago. Observing that he was raised by a single mother in the inner city, he added, after winning an NBA championship, “I’m not even supposed to be here.” Many critics pushed back, arguing that sports like basketball had always been a route out of poverty for city kids. But Harvard economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz ran the numbers and found that James was right. Players in the NBA, he discovered, were now more likely to have grown up in middle- or upper-income neighborhoods—those in the top 40 percent of incomes—than in low-income urban neighborhoods. After extensive study of players’ family backgrounds, the economist also determined that NBA athletes were far less likely to have been raised, like James, in a family headed by an unwed mother. Instead, they were twice as likely as the average black child to grow up in a two-parent household.

To the extent the media covered Stephens-Davidowitz’s findings, they focused on income differences. If you want to play in the NBA, one headline said, “It Helps to Grow Up Rich.” But better economic outcomes are only one result of stable family life. Kids raised in two-parent families are more likely, research has shown, to develop essential skills like persistence, self-regulation, and trust, which are as important to success in team sports as they are in school.

The increasingly chaotic circumstances of the inner city and the failure of institutions like local public schools have thus affected participation in all youth sports, including in football—still thought by many to be the most popular game in urban neighborhoods. A football coach at a Milwaukee high school, Kyle Henry, wrote about the obstacles his kids face. Some 80 percent of athletes, he observed, are living in single-parent households. “Well, I’m Coach Henry and I’ll now be your football Dad,” he tells his players. Football teams, even at larger urban schools, are shrinking in size because of a lack of players. Community participation is down, too. Friday Night Lights, the name given to Friday evening football games across America, don’t get much inner-city attention. “Go to any Friday night game in the inner city and you’ll see plenty of empty space in the bleachers,” Henry explained. But at suburban communities just a few miles away, one sees “pageantry, student bands, student sections, glitz and glam.”

The life of former NFL player Michael Oher, which Michael Lewis vividly recounted in his book The Blind Side, shows the obstacles. Oher was one of 12 children of a mother addicted to crack cocaine and a father who was murdered in jail. A gifted natural athlete, Oher spent much of his childhood in foster homes or living with friends and attended school sporadically, so that even when he obtained an athletic scholarship to a private high school, he struggled to succeed, until a wealthy local couple took him in. They invested enormous resources, including individual tutoring, to give him the basic tools he needed to get to college, and eventually the NFL.

Though the task is increasingly hard, plenty of evidence still suggests that, with the right resources, kids from inner-city neighborhoods will embrace—and excel at—sports. Much of that evidence comes from private institutions—especially charters and Catholic schools—which continue to succeed at educating kids in inner cities and producing the kind of top athletic talent for which city schools were once widely known.

One example, ironically, comes from the sport of soccer, where the United Soccer Coaches recently ranked the boys program at an inner-city high school, St. Benedict’s Prep of Newark, as the top team in the nation. A 154-year-old institution located just minutes from neighborhoods in Newark wracked by the 1967 riots, St. Benedict’s boasts a student body nearly 90 percent African-American and Hispanic. Many of the students there attend thanks to financial aid. St. Benedict’s philosophy emphasizes family, community, and individual responsibility, and the school graduates and sends on to college most of its enrollees. It also continues to produce the kind of athletes once common at urban schools. Among St. Benedict’s alumni are U.S. soccer legends Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos. The coach of the U.S. team in Qatar, Gregg Berhalter, is another graduate.

Inner-city kids who emerge from these programs often succeed, becoming middle- and upper-middle class themselves and raising children with those advantages. That’s one reason to celebrate statistics showing that NBA players increasingly hail from middle-class backgrounds. The captain of the U.S. national soccer team, Tyler Adams, acknowledged the progress when he was asked pointedly by an antagonistic foreign journalist why he would represent a country that had once enslaved blacks. “One thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit in in different cultures and kind of assimilate into different cultures, is that in the U.S., we’re continuing to make progress every single day,” Adams responded. “So, yeah, it’s a process. I think as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”

The sour note in all this is that profound changes in the family and, consequently, in neighborhoods, will make success much more elusive for children not lucky enough to get the intensive help that a Michael Oher found, or that a St. Benedict’s or other worthy inner-city institutions provide. This obstacle expresses itself not just in declining test scores or graduation rates, but in data showing that low-income kids are half as likely to participate in sports these days as those from families solidly in the middle class. (Covid lockdowns only worsened the problem.)

The issue is not just about finding the next LeBron James. Sports participation brings widespread benefits to children, from teaching discipline to improving resilience in facing the stresses of life. Building fields and creating leagues in the inner city, something that U.S. Soccer, the NBA, and Major League Baseball have all tried, is one thing. Rebuilding families and communities is something else entirely.

Photo: Gelner Tivadar/iStock

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