Top 10 Youth Sports Stories of 2018

By Jon Solomon

jon.solomon@aspeninstitute.org

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The beauty of youth sports is that your 10 favorite stories of the year are likely deeply personal. When you become a parent, your favorite athlete becomes the child that you’re raising. That means the confidence, development and enjoyment your child hopefully receives from sports come in so many different forms.

In some cases, this positive experience is even due to a fluke of nature. Who scores their first soccer goal of the season when the opposing goalie punts the ball off a teammate’s head, setting up an empty net as the ball rolls perfectly onto the striker’s foot? My 9-year-old son, that’s who.

But Project Play’s top 10 youth sports stories of the year are about something different. They’re the stories we deem the most important for the largest number of children collectively around the country. They’re about systematic failures and policy improvements, new research and old scandals, emerging trends and longstanding truths.

Our subjective list shows that progress is being made. And it’s a reminder that so many challenges remain for every child to have their own, positive top 10 stories. 

10. Pro sports leagues created new standards and rules for youth sports

Too often adults treat kids as mini-pro athletes. They’re not – and sport leaders continued to evolve policies in 2018. The NBA and USA Basketball recommended new playing standards for youth:

  • 30-second shot clock for ages 12 to 14

  • 8-foot-high basket for ages 7 to 8 and a 9-foot basket for 9 to 11

  • No zone defense and three-pointers for ages 7 to 11

  • Equal playing time for ages 7 to 8 and throughout the first three periods for 9 to 11.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball developed Hit and Run Baseball, a modified form of the sport with unusual rules that run counter to the game’s tradition. Medical professionals and baseball executives designed changes such as hitter limits per inning, accelerated ball and strike counts, and starting certain innings with runners on base. MLB said pilot games have shown quicker contests, more balls put in play, and reduced pitcher stress.

9. Project Play introduced new tools to get kids active through sports

In 2018, Project Play took the next step in its evolution, developing tools with our partners that align with needs that have been identified and solutions proposed. Project Play created online resources that can drive impact and improve upon some of the most significant challenges in youth sports.

  • Train coaches: HowToCoachKids.org aggregates resources to train coaches by sport and topic, and includes a new, free 30-minute course on the general principles of coaching children through age 12. Co-developed by Nike and the U.S. Olympic Committee, the resource was inspired by Project Play 2020, a multiyear effort by leading organizations to grow national sport participation rates and related metrics among youth.

  • Play healthy: Healthy Sport Index was launched in partnership with Hospital for Special Surgery, marking the first time the public can identify in one place the relative benefits and risks of participating in the 10 most popular high school sports for boys and girls. The tool combines the best available data and expert analysis while allowing users to customize sport-by-sport results through their own health priorities for participation.

  • Educate parents: The Project Play Parent Checklists provide 10 simple questions, and an accompanying video, that parents should ask of themselves, their child and their sports provider to make sports a great experience. Navigating youth sports can be confusing and frustrating, and parents often don’t know what questions to ask. The checklists and accompanying resources help parents build an athlete for life.

8. Fewer women coached youth sports

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It’s been well-documented that women remain an untapped area to develop more trained youth coaches, who are typically hard to find. That trend continued downward in data released during 2018 by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and shared with the Aspen Institute. Only 23 percent of adults who coached kids 14 and under in the past five years were female, according to data from 2017, the most recent year available. That’s down from 28 percent in 2016 and the lowest on record dating to 2012.

Why is this happening? There are different theories, such as a prevailing institutional belief of dividing the work between men and women based on traditional roles. Men typically coach, women typically serve as “team moms.” But these patterns have consequences. Boys are denied the ability to see women operate in leadership roles that males most respect. Girls are denied the opportunity to be coached by someone who looks like them and may better understand their different needs. And not to be lost in this discussion: women can be excellent coaches too.  

7. Is financial transparency coming to youth sports leagues?

In the wake of rampant theft among New Jersey youth sports leagues, proposed legislation in the state would require youth leagues to follow basic transparency requirements, including opening their books and conducting annual audits. If the law passes, the requirements would include maintaining a website that includes financial statements, tax returns, audit reports, meeting agendas, meeting minutes; conduct an annual audit that is posted to the league website and submitted to the state Division of Consumer Affairs; and give at least five days’ public notice before a board meeting, including if any action will be taken.

Keep an eye out if financial transparency gains traction for youth sports around the country. Youth sports is now an estimated $17 billion industry, at a minimum, with parents increasingly being charged more and more money, especially for travel teams. But where does that money really go? State laws that open the books could help crack down on theft or excessive spending on coaches and administrators while building better trust with consumers, who may one day turn away from these excessive costs.

6. The national conversation around access to sport grew

This isn’t a new trend, but it’s worth repeating every year: There is a system of haves vs. have-nots based on income inequality. The Atlantic took a deep dive into the issue and described the issue this way: “American Meritocracy is Killing Youth Sports.” The travel-team culture pulls children and resources away from in-town recreation leagues while sending a message that those children don’t have a future in sports. HBO Real Sports tackled the issue as well.

It’s a public health crisis. Consider this chart from the Aspen Institute with data shared by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

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5. Kids gained obesity and decreased physical activity

A 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed overweight and obesity rates increased in all age groups among children ages 2 to 19 between 1999 and 2016. The rates generally increased with age, with 41.5 percent of teens being obese by 16 to 19 years old. White and Asian children showed significantly lower rates of obesity than Hispanic and African-American children. Researchers also found a sharp increase in obesity from 2015 to 2016 compared to the previous cycle among children ages 2 to 5, especially boys. Also, the overweight rate for girls 16 to 19 years old notably jumped from 36 percent in 2013-14 to 48 percent in 2015-16.

Meanwhile, a new study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital shows that just 5 percent of youth (ages 5 to 18) get the federally recommended amount of exercise – 60 minutes per day. The study reviewed physical activity levels for more than 7,800 youth seen in outpatient sports medicine clinics. Researchers said the findings show a need for physicians to screen physical activity just as they would a vital sign, treating it similar to height and weight. Project Play thought: What if doctors wrote “prescriptions” for activity, i.e., how many minutes of activity youth really get, discuss how much is too much, and explain what sports and programs could provide more activity?

4. Federal government’s physical activity guidelines finally recognized sports

For the first time, the federal government identified youth sports as a prime opportunity to build healthy communities. The second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a key policy document that recommends how to get Americans moving throughout their lifespan. One goal of Project Play is to elevate sport among policymakers and in the health care sector as a tool of health promotion, as it is in many of the healthiest countries.

The new government’s report overlaps with many of Project Play’s strategies. For instance, sport is identified as a key sector to engage in driving solutions, and the report adopted all eight sectors identified in the National Physical Activity Plan – a non-government document that the Aspen Institute and the American College of Sports Medicine contributed to with researcher Russ Pate. The physical activity guidelines also reflect Project Play themes of design sports for development, encourage sport sampling, and assess sport options tailored to the health needs of the individual and guided by information about benefits and injury risks of each.

3. National high school federation adopted esports

The popularity of video gaming isn’t subsiding. In one of the biggest endorsements yet of video gaming’s future, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) began esports competition in high schools across the nation. NFHS entered into a partnership with online provider PlayVS and started competition with six high school organizations, including five member state associations (Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Rhode Island). The season culminates with a playoff bracket in January 2019, with state championship games being streamed on the NFHS Network. The Alabama and Mississippi state associations, plus an affiliate in Texas, will add esports next season.

By going this route, the NFHS recommended a new sport or activity for the first time since 2000, when the organization suggested schools adopt boys lacrosse. NFHS Executive Director Dr. Karissa Neihoff said the esports students are not being taken off traditional sports fields and courts, adding that they are largely students who already go home or to a friend’s house to play video games. “I think we have an opportunity to engage students in the life of the school with an activity that they might already be participating on their own,” Niehoff said in an NFHS article. Meanwhile, traditional sports added one more hurdle to get kids moving.

What’s next for esports? Going younger with “Little League” esports leagues for kids. Super League Gaming Events is trying to bring structure to the youth level, where U.S. children are believed to be far behind talent-wise compared to other countries. The top gamers in countries like South Korea are being identified before reaching middle school. “A kid who does Little League is an MLB fan for life,” Super League CEO Ann Hand told The Associated Press. “Cultivating that future fan through our youth leagues is really essential.”

2. Flag football surpassed tackle in youth participation

The year 2018 may be remembered as a crucial one for the discussion about when to start tackle. More kids now regularly play flag football than the traditional – and riskier – tackle game. Data released this year from a 2017 survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association showed more kids ages 6-12 in flag (3.3 percent) than tackle (2.9 percent). Flag football had the largest three-year increase for any surveyed sport in that age bracket (38.9 percent). Tackle football was down almost 2 percent.

In 2018, the Aspen Institute wrote a white paper 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 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.

These events happened in a year when lawmakers in California, Illinois, New York and Maryland tried unsuccessfully to create minimum ages of 12 years or older for tackle football participation. Banning tackle outright doesn’t look like a winning strategy. Participation is happening organically as flag leagues increase. NFL quarterback Drew Brees now has 12 flag football co-ed leagues across the country for kids from kindergarten through 10th grade. In Chicago, new flag leagues have siphoned many players from long-established tackle programs. And even in Hoover, Alabama – a football-crazed city in a football-mad state – the community’s youth flag league nearly tripled in size over the past five years, according to The New York Times.

1. sexual abuse scandal in gymnastics led to calls for greater protections for child athletes

More than 350 women and girls have accused Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor now in prison, of molesting them under the guise of medical treatment. In December, investigators from the law firm Ropes & Gray wrote a scathing review of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, concluding that structural flaws in the governance of the USOC and sports governing bodies have prioritized winning medals, not protecting athletes.

Prominent leaders were fired in 2018, including USOC CEO Scott Blackmun and USOC Chief of Sport Performance Alan Ashley. The entire USA Gymnastics board resigned. The USOC took initial steps to shut down USA Gymnastics after the national governing body for gymnastics botched its rebuilding effort. SafeSport, the organization tasked with addressing all forms of abuse in the U.S. Olympic movement, saw its leader, Shellie Pfohl, resign at the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, USA Today found a half-dozen coaches banned for sexual misconduct who are still active in their sport. USA Today created a database showing to what extent 49 national governing bodies (NGBs) that oversee Olympic sports do or don’t protect athletes from abuse. The database explores whether each NGB has a banned list for coaches, and if so, whether the list is communicated properly and if clubs can be punished.

For instance, 13 NGBs said they don’t have a list of banned coaches – USA Roller Sports, USA Surfing, USA Shooting, USA Synchro, USA Biathlon, USA Baseball, USA Golf, USA Bobsled & Skeleton, USA Luge, USA Water Polo, USA Pentathlon, USA Team Handball, and USA Curling. Only 10 of the 49 surveyed NGBs said they communicate a banned list to their membership. Only one NGB (USA Gymnastics) said it has issued club-level sanctions for members not abiding by the list, and just 17 NGBs said they have the authority to do so. Three NGBs have lists that they don’t publish – USA Climbing, USA Hockey and U.S. Soccer.

What can be done? Congress is reportedly close to recommending changes to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, under which the USOC operates. Child protection experts told USA Today there are three ways to keep coaches banned and children safe:

  • Create a universal banned list. The USOC has been working since June with the governing bodies to incorporate all individuals banned for sexual misconduct into one database on the SafeSport website. More funding from Congress would help.

  • Use existing enforcement mechanisms. Seventeen NGBs said they have the ability to sanction clubs or other members that don’t abide by their banned lists.

  • Require similar youth-serving organizations to honor each other’s sanctions and share information on discipline. For instance, the Amateur Athletic Union offers 20 sports that have a USOC-recognized NGB.

This story isn’t going away anytime soon. Sadly, the repercussions of the Nassar scandal will continue into 2019 and beyond.

Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program. The program’s main initiative is Project Play, which develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps stakeholders build healthy communities through sports. For more information, read Project Play’s 2018 national State of Play report and visit ProjectPlay.us.