The Facts

Direct and Indirect Consequences

Fewer athletes and fans for life

Most sports have seen a thinning of their pipeline. The percentage of children between the ages of 6 and 12 who played basketball, baseball, soccer, football, volleyball and wrestling on a regular basis has dropped since 2008 (SFIA/The Aspen Institute, 2018). Gymnastics, ice hockey and a few smaller, newer activities (most notably lacrosse and ultimate frisbee) have seen increases. Hockey has reversed declines from past years, due in part to policy interventions such as the banning of body checking and improved coach training.

As the youth sports industry encourages families to focus their children on a limited number of sports, the total number of sports that each child plays annually has declined, from an average of 2.23 sports in 2008 to 1.85 in 2017, though 2017 marked the first improvement in four years (SFIA/The Aspen Institute, 2017). The decline bears implications for sports leagues and media companies, as research shows people who participated in an organized sport are three times more likely to become an avid fan of that sport (researcher Rich Luker, 2017).

Parental unease

Caregivers are unsettled about the state of play. In the U.S., sport is widely recognized as a tool of child development and health promotion, with 75% of parents of children in middle or high school saying they encourage participation (NPR/Harvard/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2015). But 94% of parents say more needs to be done to protect their children's health and safety in youth sports (Kelton Research, American College of Sports Medicine, 2011). An espnW/Aspen Institute Project Play Survey of Parents shows concerns on a range of issues, coaching and injury risks above all. About a quarter of parents have considered keeping their child out of a sport due to concussion risks, with tackle football registering the greatest level of concern (ESPN, 2014).

Flag football in 2017 surpassed tackle in popularity among kids ages 6 to 12 who play on a regular basis (SFIA/The Aspen Institute, 2018). Flag football had the largest three-year increase for any surveyed sport in that age bracket (38.9%) while tackle football was down almost 2%. The Aspen Institute wrote a paper in 2018 concluding that children, football and communities are likely to benefit if flag is the game’s standard before high school. The LA84 Foundation, one of the nation’s largest grantmakers, announced in 2018 it would no longer fund programs that offer tackle football below age 14. Some pediatricians refused to sign medical participation forms for children to play tackle due to risks associated with the game.

Low physical activity rates into adolescence

Starting at age 9 -- when children often develop a self-concept of whether or not they are an athlete -- physical activity rates begin to drop sharply. By age 15, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity declines 75%, a higher rate than in Europe (Designed to Move, 2012). At that point, youth average only 49 minutes per weekday and 35 minutes per weekend (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008). Among high school students, 27.1% say they met the recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with one hour daily of activity (Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Study, 2015).

High obesity and overweight rates

Childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled. The percentage of children ages 6-11 who are classified as obese increased from 7% in 1980 to 17.5% in 2014. Among children ages 12 to 19, that figure grew from 5% to 20.5% (CDC, 2015). One in three children today is obese or overweight. One study found that among 17 developed nations, the U.S. had the highest rates of childhood obesity among those ages 5-19 (National Academy of Sciences, 2013). There are significant racial and ethnic disparities in obesity prevalence, with Hispanic and African American youth experiencing higher rates than white youth (CDC, 2015). While nutrition habits are a major factor in driving obesity, the level of physical activity that youth receive matters as well.

Military recruitment

More than a quarter of all Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are too obese to serve in the military. Many are turned away by recruiters and others never try to join. Of those who attempt to join, roughly 15,000 fail their entrance physicals every year because they are overweight. Obesity rates among children and young adults have increased so dramatically that they threaten the future strength of our military (Too Fat to Fight, 2010).

Male recruits from Mobile County, Alabama, suffered training-related injuries at a rate of 21.2% — more than recruits from the rest of Alabama (17%) and the country (16%), according to a study by Daniel Bornstein at The Citadel (State of Play: Mobile County report, 2018). The study showed that fitness was highly correlated with training-related injuries, even when accounting for body-mass index, age and race. Each recruit lost to injury costs the Department of Defense about $32,000. After gender, physical fitness is the strongest predictor of training-related injuries in the military.

Global competitiveness

Levels of physical activity inadequate to meet current guidelines are associated with a significant financial burden for the U.S. health care system, as much as $131 billion a year (CDC, 2015). Direct and indirect medical costs related to obesity are estimated at $147 billion a year, twice the size of the budget for the U.S. Department of Education. Direct costs are expected to more than double by 2030. Adults who are obese will face decreased earning potential, and employers will pay in the form increased health care costs (Designed to Move, 2012). In total, lifetime societal costs are $92,235 greater for a person with obesity, and if all 12.7 million U.S. youth with obesity became obese adults, the societal costs over their lifetimes may exceed $1.1 trillion (Brookings Institute, 2015).

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