MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Professional and college sports continue through the pandemic, though they have taken a toll. Many athletes and coaches have contracted the coronavirus. Games have been postponed. But still, most sports press on. Well, it has been much harder for youth sports. Many kids have lost the chance to compete or even to simply play, with their schools and community programs shut down. One study says the impact could be lasting. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Standing 6 feet, 3 inches, high school junior Antonio Jimenez can dunk a basketball on his driveway hoop - sometimes. A smooth, left-handed jump shot is the more reliable part of his game. Sixteen-year-old Jimenez from Portland, Ore., hopes it earns him some scholarship money.
ANTONIO JIMENEZ: Anything helps, you know, when it comes to college 'cause college is expensive - really expensive. That's the main goal.
GOLDMAN: It's a murky goal right now, as it is for many aspiring high school athletes. This season was key for Jimenez - developing his skills, hopefully getting noticed by colleges.
JIMENEZ: With this season being uncertain, it's scary, you know? You might not get a chance to get that exposure 'cause COVID.
GOLDMAN: With no in-person classes, no basketball practice and his sport considered high-risk for virus transmission, Jimenez has had to scramble. Here's his dad, Antonio Garcia.
ANTONIO GARCIA: There's been a lot of kind of like black ops stuff going on with COVID. A lot of kids are assembling. They're practicing social distancing the best they can, but they're not really willing to sacrifice this time for the sake of the virus.
JIMENEZ: Black ops.
GARCIA: Yeah, it's almost like black ops. We're hiding, you know, kind of underground hoop training. You know, everybody's kind of doing what they can.
GOLDMAN: Jimenez has trained with a few others at public parks or in coaches' backyards. But cold, rainy weather is coming. And with his high school team on hold, Jimenez has to figure out how to keep up. And his dad, a machinist, has to calculate getting his oldest child into an indoor training facility at 2- to $300 a month.
GARCIA: That's a car payment, you know what I mean? So that's something that you don't take lightly. But in this situation, with his senior year on the horizon, we got to look at making some investments, you know, in order to keep the dream alive.
GOLDMAN: Three hours north in Seattle, sports for high school sophomore Ruby Lee are less means to an end and more a way of life.
RUBY LEE: I started dancing when I was 2.
GOLDMAN: At around 10, she picked up Ultimate Frisbee. It's popular in Seattle's South End, where she plays on a high school team. But now, with no organized play, 15-year-old Lee feels the void.
RUBY: All around, there's less of a community, less of a, like, sense of team. That's been, like, the biggest loss for me, at least.
GOLDMAN: Her ballet, jazz and modern dance have been confined to Zoom classes. And Lee says it's been too much, considering her school classes are online as well. As a result, her motivation flagged.
RUBY: It can be pretty easy to just, like, forget about moving and stuff.
GOLDMAN: She says post-pandemic, she'll dance and play high school Frisbee again - not as much, but at least she'll resume. Others won't. A months-long national survey of youth sports during the pandemic revealed 3 kids in 10 won't come back to sports.
TRAVIS DORSCH: And that's kind of, to me, what's scary.
GOLDMAN: Utah State University professor Travis Dorsch was the main researcher for the study by the Aspen Institute's Project Play initiative. Dorsch says kids aren't returning because they're finding other things to do, or families can't afford sports anymore. The pandemic has exacerbated a long-standing gap between who can pay and who can't. Advocates say the time is ripe for reimagining youth sports so they're more affordable and accessible. But there's a more immediate problem to confront, Dorsch says. Even though the survey showed participation increased from summer to fall, the pandemic has taken a toll.
DORSCH: We now have a generation of young people who, for half of the year - and it's going to be longer - haven't been getting the necessary opportunities to move their body.
GOLDMAN: Recovering from that will be jumbled. There's a patchwork of organized sports opportunities from state to state. Some sports are opening up, even prompting high schoolers to transfer across state lines so they can play. On the other hand, seven Northeastern states agreed last week to suspend interstate youth hockey competition through the end of the year. Like much with the pandemic, confusion before clarity.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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