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Youth sports is an enterprise worthy of a bailout

Sports Editor Will Hammock

Sports Editor Will Hammock

If the high school and youth sports programs in your town aren't already having trouble paying their bills, they will soon.

And if that doesn't sound like headline-worthy news in this battered economy, just wait. You'll have your pick of headlines from the ripples it creates soon enough: fatter kids, more dropouts and less safe streets. You also won't have to wonder why the college and pro teams you follow from the couch don't seem quite as good as they used to be.

The public-private partnership that helped make youth sports part of the fabric of every neighborhood in America for decades is going broke.

''Sports are something everybody takes for granted, but already for some kids in some places, those programs are a lifeline,'' said Paul Caccamo, executive director of Up2Us, a coalition of school and community-based sports programs from around the country.

''It's already an endangered species in some inner cities, some rural areas and now, even middle-class suburban kids are getting hit with pay-to-play fees. We know as that cost goes up, participation goes down. ... And while we don't know for certain how many it's affected in all those places already,'' he added, ''it's got to be in the hundreds of thousands.''

Beginning Wednesday, Caccamo and an army of do-gooders will descend on Washington, D.C., bearing that message, some provocative research and high hopes of drawing attention to the problem and bending a few influential ears in Congress and even the White House.

During two days of conferences, co-hosted by Up2Us and the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, the people struggling to keep those programs running want to make policy-makers and the public understand how close they are to the tipping point. It's not about learning to make do with less money; in many neighborhoods, any less will mean having to do without.

They won't get nearly as much time or attention as Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and a handful of other disgraced pro stars did when they stopped by to talk about steroid use, and that's a shame. Because the danger facing sports at the youth level isn't about image, but survival.

''If we fail to keep our programs up and running, if we fail to expand them, if we fail to bring more money and more volunteers so we can reach more kids, there will be no one left to do it,'' tennis great Monica Seles plans to tell the gathering in Thursday's keynote address. ''We are kind of like the proverbial canary in the coal mine -- if we aren't singing loud and clear, then it is too late for everyone else.''

According to a report the coalition will release Wednesday, about $2 billion in funding for public school sports programs will be cut over this year and next. An equal amount in private support -- or more, perhaps as much as double -- is expected to dry up over that span for everything from pee wee football to floor hockey leagues that play in church basements.

No matter what the final figure turns out to be, youth sports advocates contend it will be dwarfed by what society will lose if the programs disappear. Research on the direct impact sports provide in different communities is spotty, but suggestive.

By most measures, funding for physical education classes, school sports and other extracurricular activities has been steadily declining for the past quarter-century. Over that same time, the number of kids aged 2 to 19 classified as obese is up nearly 20 percent; in the 6-to-11 group, it's tripled. Advocates can't prove there's a direct correlation, even if common sense hints at one.

Tying the loss of youth sports programs to increasing crime rates is tougher still. One study done in Los Angeles County in 2002 found that on average, 1.7 kids per 10,000 in neighborhoods with a wide range of school-based extracurricular activities wound up in trouble with the law. In neighborhoods with few programs, the rate was 30.9 per 10,000.

That's why laying the groundwork for a cost-benefit analysis is as much a priority for organizers as gaining access to lawmakers and the airwaves. They're certain it will make their case.

''Youth sports might not be on their radar screen right now, but obesity, dropout rates and crime-prevention are,'' Caccamo said. ''It's too valuable a tool to simply let go. In terms of effectiveness ... engaging kids on health, academics and social behavior, nothing comes close.''

This isn't one of those issues you're powerless to do anything about. Advocates envision a re-energized public-private partnership, with local government making smarter spending decisions and the rest of us stepping up to fill in the gaps. Businesses can invest more in the programs in their community. Pro athletes can donate more of their time. You can find a team or league close to work that needs a coach or referee for a few hours each week and volunteer.

Some opportunities are listed on up2us.org, but more will be available when the group's Web site, Save Youth Sports, is up and running.

''It's time for people to stop looking at sports as just Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard. That's a business model,'' said Brian Greenwood, an assistant professor of recreation, parks and tourism administration at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a researcher for Up2Us.

''It's really the sports that happen at the community level that this country cannot do without. We don't have the research to back it up yet, but anecdotally, we know what happens when (kids are) bored. As I tell students in my classes, 'They mess stuff up.'

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org