12/31/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

Separate and Unequal: The Moral Challenge for Youth Sports in America

Youth sports have dramatically transformed over the past century. Organized sports were once the exclusive domain of the privileged. Yet beginning at the end of the 19th and carrying over into the 20th century, private and public sports programs were founded specifically to serve poor children in urban areas. Common to all of these programs was a commitment to protect and serve society's most vulnerable children by providing them with an opportunity to play in safe areas under the supervision of caring adults. In so doing, we leveled the playing-field, as it were, between the economically privileged and the poor.

Over the past few decades, however, youth sports programs have become increasingly privatized and expensive. Once driven by philanthropy, they are now driven by profits and dreams of college scholarships and lucrative professional sports careers. Youth sports have become a seven billion dollar business feeding an eight billion dollar travel industry. According to information compiled by Turbo Tax, twenty-percent of parents spend over $1,000 per child on sports, and many parents in high income brackets are spending upwards of $10,000 per child. While middle and upper class parents pour money into club programs, poor children are left to fend for themselves in dwindling school and recreation programs. Since the economic downturn in 2008, "pay-to-play-sports" have become the norm in urban public schools. According to a study by the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Family Children's Hospital, the cost of pay-to-play sports is averaging almost four hundred dollars per child and rising, which is causing increasing numbers of working class and poor parents to withdraw their children from school sports.

With rising rates of obesity and stress-related cognitive and socio-emotional impairments, poor children need youth sports programs more than ever. Yet beyond the rising financial burden of fees and equipment, many low income parents simply have neither the time nor the access to transportation required for their children to participate in current youth sports programs.

The American people agree in principle that all children should have a fair and roughly equal opportunity to develop as breadwinners, citizens, and, most importantly, as human beings. Yet our economic, judicial, and political structures are widening the opportunity gap between rich and poor. At a time when we should be coming together to build a better future for all of our children, we live in separate neighborhoods and cultures.

All parents feel responsible to give their own children the best possible head start in life. Many find youth sports to be an outlet for their parental care as well as for their passion for sports and competition. Sadly, their children's sports activities can so consume parents that they lose sight of what is best for their own children as well as the plight of children from less advantaged circumstances.

We need to return to the vision that once democratized youth sports in America. That vision once brought the public and private sectors together to improve the lives of children, especially the most vulnerable. Last June, Play Like a Champion Today's Youth Sports Leadership Conference at the University of Notre Dame honored Michael Poole and Deacon James Page for their work with the South Bend Breakers, a basketball program founded by Poole that serves inner-city girls and boys in South Bend. When asked what led him to devote his life to caring for other people's children, Deacon Page said simply, "These are our kids." Youth sports in America have become unfair and dysfunctional. We owe our children better.

Turbo Tax:

University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Family Children's Hospital: