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Youth Sports Need Santa Claus This Christmas

"Rich or poor, he loves you just the same."

Sports fans, before settling into your holiday feast of basketball and football viewing, you need to watch “The Play Gap,” Bryant Gumbel’s latest episode on HBO’s Real Sports. You may be surprised at how much has changed since you were a child; if you’re like me, you played sports on school teams and in pickup games after school and through the summer. But today, “pay to play” sports have replaced free play.

How much are you paying for your children’s travel soccer, club volleyball, or AAU basketball? Real Sports reports that Americans spent $17 billion dollars on youth sports this year. Parents eager to give their children an “edge” for a college scholarship or for just making an elite club team spend about $1,000 per month per child. Many of those parents pay from $100 to $150 an hour for a personal trainer. Others, who just want their children to have fun and make friends while playing the sports we played for free, now pay at least $50 to a $100 per child per month.

What happens to families priced out of the new normal? Their children aren’t playing, unless their children show exceptional athletic promise. Research from the Aspen institute shows unequal participation in youth sports reflects the growing income inequality of our society. Children in low income households are three times less likely to participate in youth sports than their upper income peers. There are too many children left on their own after school, deprived of the mentoring of coaches and the peer support of a sport team that my research shows contributes to children's character development.

So what can we do? WWSD—What Would Santa Do? Back in the fourth century, Santa got his start by making sure poor children were cared for at Christmas. What fascinates and delights my grandchildren about Christmas is not the gifts received, but the fact that Santa gives gifts to all children; no one (they believe) gets left out. Those of us committed to keeping Santa’s mission alive know that “rich or poor, he loves you just the same.”

The HBO “Play Gap” episode ends as a tragedy, but there is reason for HOPE. If we are all willing to do our share, we have the financial capacity to provide quality youth sports programs for every child in every community in America. Closing the play gap is a daunting challenge but also an urgent responsibility for those of us who refuse to stop believing in Santa.

F. Clark Power is Professor of Developmental Psychology in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is also the Executive Director of Play Like a Champion Today, a non-profit promoting all children’s participation in youth sports

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