12/06/2012 08:06 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

It's Time to Put Youth Sports Back in the Game

Last month's election was monumental for young people in California. Voters approved the first statewide tax increase since 2004, dodging $6 billion in cuts that would have crippled our public schools and universities. Already, educational leaders are prioritizing how to restructure their budgets now that they have the means to foot the bill: for example, recently the Los Angeles Unified School District voted unanimously to reinstate five school days to the calendar.

Voters' support for education, especially in this dire budget climate, is refreshing. It also provides the opportunity for our state to make a renewed commitment to youth sports programs which have been steadily decimated for years. At the current rate of cutbacks in public education, it is projected that nearly one in four high schools across the country will no longer offer interscholastic sports by 2019, according to the Decade in Decline study published by the University of Michigan's SHARP Center.

There is a wealth of research that draws a positive correlation between youth sports participation, physical fitness and scholastic achievement, focusing on everything from better cognitive performance to increased enrollment in AP classes to improved high school graduation rates and college matriculation rates.

Here is just a sampling of these findings: According to data from LAUSD high schools, students who participated in sports during the 2010-2011 school year had higher GPAs on average than those who didn't. And in LAUSD's Beyond the Bell afterschool sports program, active in 95 local middle schools with funding support from the LA84 Foundation, participating students attended school more often and completed Algebra 1 at a higher rate -- important predictors of future academic success. I believe policymakers across the country should apply these findings as they readdress education reform this year.

Recently, we tackled this very subject at the LA84 Foundation's Annual Summit. Before a group of leading researchers, educators and philanthropists in this field, Dr. Don Sabo of D'Youville College discussed the concept of youth sports programs as an investment in "social capital." His research supports the truth that athletes already know: not only do sports enhance academic achievement, but they also promote the social cohesion and healthy interactions that our youngsters need to thrive.

The positive impact of these programs extends into the community. One study conducted this year reported that high schools which offer more athletic programs for their students reported lower rates of suspension, violence and assault -- and as icing on the cake, their students also earned higher AP scores. According to one of Dr. Sabo's studies, girls who play sports are less likely to get pregnant and are significantly less likely to report sexual victimization than non-athletes. Another survey reported that student athletes are less likely than their non-athletic counterparts to engage in delinquent behavior that negatively affects communities. In contrast, youth sports programs are proven to catalyze social connections that create tight-knit families and supportive neighborhoods.

More research needs to be done as we attempt to draw a closer connection between sports participation and academic excellence, taking into account factors like gender, race, ethnicity, school location and family level. We must be deliberately holistic in our research so that that the findings can be fully applied to inform more effective and relevant educational policies.

When you look at the whole picture, it's clear we have much to gain from improving and expanding athletic programs for our children -- and so much to lose if we don't. The United Health Foundation projects that obesity will cost the United States approximately $344 billion in medical-related expenses in 2018, which would amount to 21 percent of our nation's health care budget. In light of this, educators and policymakers in California and around the country should consider an innovative outlook to this discussion: an investment in youth sports could help trim our national budget and increase our competitiveness in the global economy. I base my claim on one reality I think we can all agree on: when our students are healthy and equipped to succeed both in and out of the classroom, our country will excel as well.