As pandemic restrictions drag on in many parts of the United States, their negative impact on the mental and physical health of America’s children has become more obvious. Persistent school closures, in particular, have contributed to a decline in student achievement and a rise in mental-health problems. Closely tied to school shutdowns has been a dramatic curtailing of youth sports. Though children as a group have largely escaped the most serious effects of Covid-19, nearly half of all parents of youth athletes say that their kids have yet to get back to sports participation after the virus put an end to their youth leagues. The results, researchers say, include rising obesity rates and levels of depression. With many local sports groups collapsing after more than two years of lockdowns and parents reporting less interest by children in sports, reviving this valuable contributor to kids’ health and well-being won’t be easy.
In an Aspen Institute survey on youth sports released late last year, some 45 percent of American parents said that local community programs and so-called travel teams had either disappeared during the pandemic or returned with reduced capacity. Nearly a quarter said that the lost programs were an impediment to getting their children back into games, and 28 percent admitted that, since the shutdowns, their kids had lost interest in organized sports. That’s up from 19 percent in a similar survey taken a year earlier.
Covid has worsened what was a troubling trend even before the pandemic: a sharp decline in children’s participation in physical activity. From 2012 through 2019, Aspen surveys revealed, the share of American children participating in sports had declined to 31 percent, from 38 percent. Among lower-income and lower-middle-income kids, especially, studies show a sharp rise in inactivity. Meantime, rates of childhood obesity have been climbing, from about 11 percent of all kids in the mid-1990s to 19 percent by 2019, and 22 percent last year.
Participation in youth sports has also been closely associated with improved mental health and socialization skills. Not surprisingly, curtailing local programs has taken its toll. A survey of youth athletes after the first round of Covid lockdowns in 2020 found 70 percent reporting moderate to high levels of anxiety when sports ended. Scores on quality-of-life tests, which assess an individual’s overall mental well-being, also plunged, according to University of Wisconsin researchers. Conversely, half of parents surveyed in the Aspen Institute study found that kids’ mental health greatly improved when they returned to play. Research has consistently demonstrated a long-term value of participation for youth development. One study found that the longer children participate in sports, the less likely they are to develop emotional problems like panic attacks and social phobias. Responding to the idea that playing sports during the pandemic put kids at risk, one researcher on the University of Wisconsin study said, “I take the opposite view. . . . We need to give them sports opportunities to keep them safe and healthy.”
Athletics have suffered the most in places with the strictest lockdowns, such as California. Los Angeles County, for instance, initially required all youth athletes to wear masks while playing—even outdoors, where transmission is rare. In the Aspen survey, 40 percent of California parents of student athletes said that their kids had lost interest in sports. Similarly, in New York State, 38 percent of parents report that children have abandoned sports during Covid. By contrast, in Texas, with far looser Covid requirements, only 18 percent of kids have lost interest in sports, parents told pollsters.
Athletes, parents, and organizers have grown frustrated by inconsistent Covid policies, which sometimes put low priority on getting kids back to play. In early 2021, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration delayed the opening of winter scholastic sports by nearly two months, even though Covid cases were declining and the state had allowed bars to reopen weeks earlier. Parents and athletes protested the decision at the state capitol. The superintendent of Detroit public schools, Nikolai Vitti, wrote a caustic letter to Whitmer, pointing out that more than 99 percent of student athletes had tested negative for Covid the previous fall and warning that parents and coaches were threatening to sue the administration.
In some states and districts, advocates for youth sports balked at restrictions that shut down games, even as neighboring jurisdictions played on. In early 2021, Michigan coaches began lining up games next door in Indiana, a state with fewer restrictions. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf surprised parents and organizers by announcing at an August 2020 press conference that he opposed school sports resuming. That recommendation sent the state’s high school athletic association, which was ultimately responsible for making that decision but had not been consulted by Wolf, scrambling. By contrast, in neighboring New Jersey, as local papers noted, Governor Phil Murphy had worked with the state athletic association to develop a plan that reopened youth sports. Though the Pennsylvania athletic association ultimately allowed school athletics to resume, opposition from state officials was so strong that entire athletic conferences declined to play in the fall of 2020. Some school districts attributed their decision to cancel sports to liability fears, given the pushback from state health department officials.
Two years of Covid has taught us much. We know that youth are at much less risk of serious outcomes from the virus. Transmission rates among kids are substantially lower than those among adults, as numerous studies have shown. Conversely, lockdowns have exacted a steep toll on students’ physical, emotional, and academic life. We may be seeing the effects on this generation of young people play out for years after we’ve tamed Covid. Fortunately, the educators, politicians, and experts of some districts have recognized the importance of youth athletics and have worked hard to get them going again. Before the pandemic, some 8 million high school students participated in at least one sport. Understanding the value of youth athletics is the first step toward rebuilding this essential American institution.