Donald Trump wants more kids to play sports. And that’s a goal pretty much everybody can and should get behind. Flanked on the South Lawn Wednesday by Herschel Walker, Misty May-Treanor, and an eager group of kids ready for the White House “Field Day,” the President reiterated his administration’s commitment to reversing the declining trend in kids playing organized sports. In February, Trump signed an executive order directing his secretary of Health and Human Services to “develop a national strategy to increase youth sports participation.” He even went so far as to rename the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition ⏤ moving the word ‘Sports’ in front of ‘Fitness’ ⏤ to show he means business. Trump, once an elite athlete himself, seems committed to the effort and has also voiced an eagerness to help underprivileged kids get on the field.
What Trump has not done is provide meaningful financial support for youth sport. And, yes, that sprawling, paycheck-consuming industrial complex could use the help.
The economic system upon which youth sports is built is fundamentally broken. How do we know this? Participation levels have steadily been on the decline over the last decade, dropping from 45 percent in 2008 to 37 percent in 2016, while child obesity, not surprisingly, is on the rise. And while part of the problem is the advance of competitive travel teams and delusional parents hellbent on their kids earning college scholarships, the bigger issue is that there’s not enough money to pay for youth sports ⏤ either from the government or schools. Some parents pick up the tab, but it’s not unstainable for most. League fees now commonly climb towards $400.
Poor kids might be able to make the team, but they can’t make the team.
And that’s where the giant contradiction in Trump’s initiative is exposed. Pay-to-play has become common because schools can’t afford sports. Spending and tax cuts have all but dried-up government coffers and left school and town budgets decimated. All those recent teacher strikes? Yeah, those are just to get money for books ⏤ forget football uniforms or basketballs. It’s one thing for Trump to say he’s for more poor kids playing sports but his budget priorities, including substantive tax breaks for big corporations and spending cuts on social programs, don’t seem in line with his rhetoric.
His economic policies directly hurt the very poor kids he claims he wants to help get on the field. If it was hard enough to find $400 to join the high school basketball team when your family was on food stamps and CHIP health insurance, imagine how tough it’s going to be when your now struggling to put bread on the table and can’t see a doctor. If the problem with youth sports is already a lack of funds, then sucking more money from the organizations that run them or the parents that underwrite them doesn’t seem like a logical start.
According to Ivanka, the White House’s national youth sports strategy will involve “partnering with groups in the public and private sectors.” So it’s entirely possible that the administration will find a way to infuse more private sector money into the system so that neither schools nor the parents of low-income athletes will have to foot their sports bill. Or maybe it means he’s going to Twitter shame local hardware stores into sponsoring youth baseball leagues. Who knows. But if President Trump was truly serious about reversing the trend in declining youth sports participation, he would start by reversing his tax cuts.