Playing Youth Sports Takes A Lot More Green Than It Used To : Shots - Health News Kids on club teams have an advantage in making the high school team. But many families are being priced out by the high cost of league fees, equipment, and travel that club sports require.

Playing Youth Sports Takes A Lot More Green Than It Used To

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today in your health, more about sports and money. According to a recent poll NPR conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health, money has a lot to do with whether low-income Americans and their children get a chance to play sports. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: You could say Matt Ray lives and works in paradise - a beach town and barrier island off the coast of southern Florida. And, as athletic director of the Anna Maria Island Community Center, Ray is able to do what he loves.

MATT RAY: I grew up playing sports. I actually played two years of college basketball, so sports has pretty much been my entire life.

NEIGHMOND: The center offers basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, kickball - pretty much any sport, says Ray, an adult or child would want to play. But there's a membership fee to join the center, and Ray says if he didn't work here, he'd have a tough time paying. He's a single dad with full custody of his two young children.

RAY: So with one income - having to pay for everything myself because I'm supposed to get child support but I don't receive it, it would be tough to pay for any extracurricular activities or whatever 'cause most of my money goes to bills and rent.

NEIGHMOND: In our poll, only 15 percent of lower income adults say they play sports. Nearly 40 percent of higher-income adults say they play. And parents who are less well-off are twice as likely to report problems with the cost of their child's sports compared to parents who are better off. Matt Ray is highly committed to having his children play sports, but if not for the center, he says, he just couldn't afford it.

RAY: It's 120 for the season, which, you know, you play eight games. So, you know, for two kids, you know, that would be, you know, 240. And that'd be tough for me to come up with - just an extra 240 just so they could play sports, you know what I mean?

NEIGHMOND: And that's the case for lots of parents. In Baltimore, Lenise White is a single mother who works full-time - some days 10, 12 hours a day at a doctor's office. Her son, Timothy, has been playing football since he was seven. It's a club team which comes with a price tag that hasn't been easy.

LENISE WHITE: At the beginning of the year, you're spending roughly $200, 250. If you have to buy pads or pants, or if you have to buy shoulder pads, that might be another hundred to 150.

NEIGHMOND: When you add it all up, White says, it's a hefty number. And then there's the travel. For playoffs and championship games, her son's team often competes with teams in nearby states, and White often drives carpool. She has to pay for gas, of course, but also for a bunch of hungry kids.

WHITE: My son was saying mommy can we stop and get something to eat, I'm hungry. And I knew he was hungry because he had just expended so much energy playing in the game...

NEIGHMOND: Just like all the other boys in the car.

WHITE: So even if my pocket said I'm empty, you don't have anything to take out, I had to spend what I had to help feed these other children as well.

NEIGHMOND: White makes about $30,000 a year and often has to make difficult choices.

WHITE: I have penny pinched, and I have not bought things for myself for lunch before to make sure that my son could have the things that he needed that I knew would make him happy and would give him another perspective and view on the world around him. And one of those vehicles was football.

NEIGHMOND: The years of practice have made White's son competitive with other kids, which is critical, she says, as he enters his sophomore year in high school and tries out for varsity teams. White's been able to make this happen for her son, but lots of parents can't.

DARRYL HILL: Who is available to play youth sports? It's certainly not our underserved children. They're being shut out more and more and more.

NEIGHMOND: Darryl Hill chairs Kids Play U.S.A. Foundation, a group dedicated to changing policies and practices that make youth sports so costly. Hill played college and professional football in the 1960s. He says well-to-do parents can spend thousands and thousands of dollars building their child's sports skills, high-end equipment, private lessons and travel as part of an elite team to cities across the country to compete.

HILL: The irony of it is and the bad part about it is these tournaments and these out-of-state and out-of-town affairs now are becoming a forum that the scouts and coaches at college level are looking to evaluate players. So these kids who might need a scholarship don't get the exposure because they can't afford to go to these tournaments.

NEIGHMOND: The kids who really need to play sports the most, Hill says, are the ones often being left out. And these kids typically don't have all the fancy high-tech gadgets upper-income kids do.

HILL: So now you got an idle kid just standing on the corner with nothing to do, particularly in our inner-cities. What does that lead to? All of a sudden, homeboy drives up and says hey, we your family, man. We your team, join us.

NEIGHMOND: Even public high school sports, says Hill, come with a fee. Registration costs are sometimes subsidized, but not completely. And there's still the cost of uniforms, equipment, and the challenge for many low-income parents who don't own a car - getting their child back and forth to practice. And forgetting the cost for just a moment, Hill says, the overall commercialization of kid's sports is bad news. Everything's organized and monitored. The pressure to win is big, and many kids just aren't having fun anymore, so they quit.

HILL: In my generation, we had free-play - playground sports, pick-up games - we played among ourselves. So everyday we would come home from school and if it was baseball season we would run out to the sandlot, and we would play baseball among ourselves - no adult supervision to speak of. There were leagues around, but it was fun. We just played.

NEIGHMOND: Not so anymore, says Hill, who says kids drop out of sports in droves, which is particularly alarming since the U.S. still struggles so much with overweight and obese children. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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