From living rooms in the Bay Area, viewers absorb countless “saved-by-sports” stories, cheering for the character who didn’t go to juvie because of the football team, the person who is able to go to college because of their sport, or the people who find purpose and meaning in being a part of the athletics program. Consumers become enraptured by these scripted stories that highlight young people’s lives, and immersed in fictional towns in which a youth sports program means everything.
At the same time, many Berkeley High School (BHS) students and other locals bemoan the loss of their sports in the wake of the pandemic, each person missing a different activity. From practice fields or gyms to teammates and skills, it seems like everyone is feeling the impact of losing opportunities that were once an outlet.
What is lacking, however, is the ability to draw a connection between these two things. We don’t often think about what the loss of youth sports means for communities wholly centered around them, where they are not just a pastime, but a way out, a path to a better life. While sports are dearly missed and there is no doubt of their significance, for most students, they were not the singular resource and hope for their future. The loss of sports may affect their mental and physical health, or their friendships, but this loss does not jeopardize their future. And for the Bay Area as a whole, we did not lose the one thing uniting us or the central identity of our towns.
But what happens to the places where a youth sport is the defining element of a community, and to the students who relied on sports to keep them off the streets, or provide them with opportunities they have no other way of getting? What happens to those kids when club sports are starting up and more affluent kids have the privilege of practicing with trainers? What does it mean for their wellbeing, their communities, and their futures?
Sports are intertwined with education in the US to an extreme, more so than the majority of other countries. Schools pour money into athletics programs, counting on sports to foster school spirit. Sports work in parallel with teachers to boost student athletes’ academic performance and teach youth important lessons of teamwork, failure, and success. In some areas, youth sports also unify wider communities, and are healthy channels into which kids can pour their passion and stay out of trouble. Real life success stories include LeBron James, who felt the positive effects of school sports and the support system that they come with. Born to a 16-year-old single mother, he constantly moved around. The only stability he had was when his basketball coach took him into his home. He was able to focus on his sport and his studies, and today he is one of the most successful and famous NBA all-stars of all time. Although becoming a high-profile athlete like LeBron James — or a pro athlete at all — is far from the norm, the impact of sports is still significant even without it becoming a career.
During the 2018-19 school year, nearly eight million US high school students played interscholastic sports. However, the participation data ends there. The 2019-20 school year was off to a promising start with positive trends in sports participation, but winter sports were cut short and spring sports never got a chance to begin as schools shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As a result, the annual report on high school sports could not be completed for last school year. But more importantly, many of those eight million student athletes were not able to complete or in some cases even begin their sports seasons, and this year is most certainly not back to normal.
Each state has formulated a unique plan to deal with high school sports, all utilizing a mixture of redrawn sports seasons, cancellations, and modifications. These plans are constantly adapting based on infection trends, the spread of COVID-19 amongst players, and other factors. While low-income students will have to wait with fingers crossed to see if their season will go ahead, others have the means to hire private trainers and continue improving as individual athletes, and others are able to afford club teams with resources that enable them to operate under the necessary safety guidelines and resume practices.
As the school year has only been underway for a little over two months, there is not yet conclusive data detailing which students have access to which sports-related resources, and how these opportunities may give some a leg up in regards to their future. However, as information emerges, it will be important to see what effect the lack of access to sports has on students’ health and wellbeing, on college admissions and scholarships, and on any skill gap that may disadvantage those who did not have access to training this year. Time will tell how these effects may play out in low-income communities that are hit harder by these consequences.