Challenging issues in youth and high school sports in the United States

Rachel Madsen and Annemarie Farrell


Sport is an important component of life in the United States, and more people play sport during childhood than at any other time in their life. The United States is unique in combining sport and education for high school children and for not providing national subsidies for youth sport. Local municipalities typically offer limited youth sport programs at a relatively low cost, but the majority of youth sport is paid for by individual families. While the size of the entire U.S. sport and recreation industry is difficult to quantify, current estimates point to an amount of over $500 billion (Plunkett Research, 2020), ranking within the top 15 domestic industries (IBIS World, 2020).

It is easy to assume that professional sport generates most of the revenue, however of the estimated $500 billion (Plunkett, 2020), only $35 billion is generated by professional leagues and teams (Masteralexis et al., 2019; Pricewaterhouse Coopers, 2019). This means that recreation and amateur sport combine to generate the remaining $465 billion. While the recreation segment of the industry includes leisure activities (camping, fishing, and hunting), when we consider just competitive youth sport in the United States, an estimated $19 billion is spent on youth sports (Eustis, 2020; Gregory, 2017; Thompson, 2018). This is up 55% since 2010 and surpasses the $15 billion size of the NFL (Business Wire, 2019; Gregory, 2017). The amount spent on high school sport is much lower, at $5 billion (Ohio University, 2014), but school sports are subsidized, and the participation rate drops significantly once kids are in high school.

Youth sport in the United States

In the United States, the term youth sport generally refers to organized sport for kids, ages 6-12, and it usually takes place outside of schools. While middle schools (typically including grades 6—8, ages 10-14) in some states may offer organized sport, it is more common for youth sport to be administered externally by a community recreation department or a private club team. More than ten million kids aged 6-12 regularly participated in organized sport in 2018. While

Table 5.1 Youth Sport Participation in Select Sports in 2018


Baseball Soccer

Flag Football

Tackle Football

Ice Hockey









this represents 38% of youths in that age range, it is down from 45% a decade earlier and is considerably less than the participation rate of 70% that is often seen in European countries (Aspen Institute, 2019; Felfe, Lechner, &. Steinmayr, 2016; US Census Bureau, 2019). Basketball is the most popular sport for youth, followed by baseball and soccer. Tackle football has seen a recent decline due to safety concerns and has lost over one million youth participants since 2008. However, flag football has seen a dramatic increase in interest and is now the fourth most popular sport for kids. Lacrosse, the fastest growing sport in the United States has grown 158% in recent years, but the overall number of participants is still comparatively low (Aspen Institute, 2018; Little League International, n.d.- b; Solomon, 2017a; US Lacrosse, n.d.; US Youth Soccer, n.d.; USA Basketball, n.d.; USA Hockey, n.d.). See Table 5.1 for an overview of current participation in select popular youth sports.

Youth sport has always been encouraged in the United States due to the widespread belief that sport provides a positive experience that encourages a healthy lifestyle and teaches valuable life skills. Research consistently confirms that kids who take part in organized sport have higher grades, better physical and emotional health, better family and peer relationships, and an overall higher quality of life (Felfe et al., 2016; Flanagan, 2017).

History of youth sport in the United States

While kids have always played active games, organized youth sport began in the mid-1800s when the trend toward compulsory education began. The first U.S. state mandated education in 1852, with other states following, until education was required nationally in 1917 (Friedman, 2013). During this same period, child labor laws were becoming prevalent, limiting the amount of time and type of work that children under the age of 16 were allowed to perform (History' Channel, 2009). Due to these societal changes, kids now had a few hours of “free time” each day, which concerned parents and child-rearing experts. Interesting to note, initial waves of organized sport were developed especially for lower-class boys. Upper-class parents also believed that their children too needed structured free time, however wealthier kids were generally occupied with non-competitive activities such as dancing and music lessons.

Organized youth sport was especially directed at immigrant boys in urban areas and seen as an effective way to teach American values. In 1903, New York City established the Public School Athletic League for Boys (PSAL) to oversee high school sports, while concurrently creating the Elementary Games Commission, which focused on younger boys. Within a few years, other cities copied the NY PSAL model, similarly directed at low-income immigrant boys. Sport clubs not affiliated with schools also began to grow in the early 1900s, primarily out of settlement houses and ethnic clubs (Friedman, 2013). Settlement houses were located in poor, urban areas but occupied by upper-class, educated citizens for the purpose of helping the poor through education and by spreading Christian values (Hansan, 2011). These expanded sport clubs provided many opportunities, free of cost, to lower-class, often immigrant boys.

During the early 1930s, many sport clubs closed due to financial hardships faced during the Great Depression. Recognizing a programmatic need, several fee-based recreational organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Little League Baseball, and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) stepped in to fill the gap (Little League, n.d.-a). Pop Warner football was initially only for high school aged students due to safety concerns, but in the late 1950s football was expanded to include youth (Pop Warner, n.d.). Youth soccer organizations arrived a bit later in the United States, as the sport of soccer did not originate domestically and thus was seen as an immigrant sport. American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) began in 1964 and the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA) in 1974, but membership in these organizations grew steadily and soccer soon became one of the most popular sports for American kids.

During this same time, many educators expressed concern that competitive sport was not appropriate for young children. Elementary schools continued to de-emphasize competition into the 1960s, resulting in most elementary schools abandoning organized youth sport, with many not offering competitive sport programming today. As a result, the United States saw a steady stream of non-school, pay-for-play sport organizations sprout up as parents increasingly embraced competition and searched for ways to differentiate their children (Friedman, 2013). The unforeseen result of this shift away from elementary school sport to private club sport was to severely limit access to sport for low-income children. The interest in competitive sport continued to steadily grow with some historians linking the rise in organized youth sport in the 1970s and 1980s to rising parental anxiety over college admissions (Shulman & Bowen, 2001). Additionally, the 1970s saw more households with both parents working outside the home, leading to a need for structured, supervised after-school activities.

Girls’ youth sport has a completely separate history, as many sport organizations did not allow females for decades. Although AAU started allowing girls in 1923, Little League Baseball did not include girls until 1974 and only after they were mandated by a court decision. In 1972, 12-year old Maria Pepe was forced to leave her New Jersey Little League Baseball team when Little League International threatened the charter status of the entire league. The National Organization for Women (NOW) filed a lawsuit on Maria’s behalf and in 1974 Little League was forced to allow girls (de la Cretaz, 2018; Little League International, 2004). However, rather than fully integrating girls into youth baseball, Little League started a softball division and encouraged interested girls to play softball rather than baseball. Following the decision in 1974, more than 30,000 girls signed up for Little League Softball. Because of the court decision, girls today are allowed to play Little League Baseball if they choose, however today only 100,000 girls play Little League Baseball compared to almost three million boys (Aspen Institute, 2018; de la Cretaz, 2018).

Current structure

When considering the organizational structure for youth sport in the United States, there is not a standard structure. Instead, various governing bodies, often several within the same sport, oversee programming. For example, almost three million youths play soccer in the United States, but youth soccer is gov- erned by three main organizations: AYSO, USYSA, and U.S. Club Soccer. All three organizations are affiliated with the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) which is the recognized National Governing Body (NGB) for soccer in the United States, but each organization operates independently with no direct oversight from USSF (AYSO, 2019; US Youth Soccer, n.d.). There is a general understanding that AYSO and USYSA follow a more recreational philosophy that prioritizes fun and learning, while U.S. Club Soccer is intended for more competitive athletes, often involving a great deal of travel for competition. Additionally, many communities offer low-cost soccer programs, unaffiliated with any large governing body.

Club soccer has become very popular recently, but the membership fees to play can be as high as $5,000 a year, and costs can rise to $12,000 when travel and equipment costs are included. While most club teams solicit donations in order to occasionally offer scholarships for participants who cannot afford fees, such scholarships usually only cover membership costs and typically are only offered to one child per team. This has resulted in soccer being largely a sport for wealthy American children, often producing a glaring lack of diversity.

Worldwide, many of the most talented soccer players grew up in poverty, but in the United States, the high costs of club soccer have resulted in the most competitive teams having very few children of color because African American, Native American, and Hispanic families tend to earn lower incomes than Caucasian families (Carpenter, 2016; US Census Bureau, 2019). Even in communities that have a high percentage of South American immigrants, where soccer is wildly popular, youth soccer is not accessible to low-income families. In fact, compared to basketball and football, high-performing soccer players are much more likely to be white and come from communities with higher incomes and higher education rates (Promat, 2017). Aside from the financial barriers, there exists a social perception in the United States that soccer is a white, suburban sport, while urban kids play basketball and/or football, resulting in those sports having a more diverse make-up (Carpenter, 2016). There are also those who believe that American youth soccer stifles creativity and makes U.S. national teams less competitive on an international stage. Comparatively, kids in Latin America more often play unstructured games with no adult structure or supervision, but in the end, they produce more successful national teams (Wiggins, 2018).

Another example of a decentralized structure can be seen in youth basketball where many governing bodies exist, for example: AAU, YMCA, Boys &. Girls Clubs, USA Basketball, Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), and local town/ city recreation departments. AAU, which sponsors travel club basketball, has been the leader in youth sport since moving into this section in the 1980s. However, AAU has been widely criticized for not requiring any coaching education and for overemphasizing competition rather than development (Phillips, 2015). Additionally, AAU basketball fees can be up to $7,000 per season, not including travel, and many kids play multiple basketball seasons per year (Johnson, 2018; Schultz, 2013). AAU basketball teams do take part in a great deal of fundraising (including soliciting corporate sponsorships) in order to provide scholarships for low-income athletes, however these scholarships are typically only provided to the most talented players. Due to these criticisms, in recent years, USA Basketball and the NBA have partnered to recommend changes to the youth basketball system including coaching education, coaching certification, training, and competition limits (USA Basketball, n.d.).

Similar to soccer and basketball, there are multiple organizations involved in administering youth baseball and softball. Little League International is a well- known organization based in Pennsylvania that oversees 6,500 leagues in more than 84 different countries (Little League, n.d.-b). In the United States, more than three million kids play Little League, with the Little Leagues Baseball World Series drawing considerable television viewership every August. However, Little League provides a more traditional, community-based, developmental baseball experience and many families are opting for travel “select” teams (Moran, 2019).

Perhaps even more so than club soccer and basketball, select baseball teams are a massive business, changing the face of youth sport in the United States. Especially in warm weather states such as Florida, California, and Texas, where baseball can be played year-round, select baseball has become a semi-professional sport with players as young as eight being recruited from across the country, playing for national championships, and accumulating millions of followers on social media (Caplan, 2017). United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) existed for decades as an adult softball organization, but seeing an opportunity to expand into youth baseball, they renovated a 1.3-million-square-foot Major League Baseball complex to sponsor their own World Series in youth baseball, drawing many of the largest sporting goods companies as partners (Berman, 2017). In order to qualify for the USSSA World Series in July, teams play in qualifying tournaments across the country beginning in September (USSSA, n.d.).

Development of unique/non-traditional sport

Some individual sports have different developmental systems compared to more traditional team sports. Skiing/snowboarding, golf, figure skating, and gymnastics are a few examples of sports that may be more difficult for kids to access, due to a lack of local community grassroots programs. In order to develop in one of these sports, families need to enroll their kids in private lessons, often located at for-profit facilities, such as a ski resort, country club, or gymnastics club. Despite the barriers, youth gymnastics participation has risen 15% in recent years. Some reasons for this growth may be the recent massive media coverage of successful U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. Additionally, USA Gymnastics has ramped up recruitment and training efforts in order to produce a quality team for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics (League Network, 2018; Solomon, 2017b). USA Gymnastics tries to identify young gymnasts with extraordinary' talent at the ages of 7-10. Once a gymnast qualifies for the national team at age 12, USA Gymnastics covers the costs of training and travel, but the travel costs are only for the athlete and not for their family. Additionally, in order to be selected for a national team, the family pays for year-round training which averages $15,000 a year, not including travel and uniforms (Van Riper, 2012; USA Gymnastics, n.d.).

Similarly, training and coaching for ski racing often costs $30,000 a year and even athletes on the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association teams need to contribute $10,000 a year (Bailey-Shah, 2014; Higgins, 2018). After gymnast Gabby Douglas won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics, the U.S. public became aware that her mother (and the families of other successful Olympians) had recently filed for bankruptcy, raising awareness of access issues for individual sports (Fallon, 2012).

Current issues and trends in youth sport Shift away from publicly funded programs

As described earlier, team sports like soccer, basketball, and soccer have shifted away from inexpensive, community-sponsored, developmentally focused teams toward more expensive, competitive, private, travel, club teams. Due to this shift, currently one in five parents spends more than $ 1,000 per child each month on sports activities (Berg, 2017; Corbin &. Culp, 2019). With so many kids flocking to private club teams, few remain to play on community teams, further limiting opportunities for low-income kids who rely on low-cost programs (Flanagan, 2017). A glaring example can be seen in the state of Minnesota where youth participants in community-sponsored sport has dropped 22% since 1991 across all sports. Meanwhile, the number of kids playing travel club basketball alone has increased by 60% during the same time period (CBS Minnesota, 2015).

Increased costs of sport participation have resulted in low-income kids being inactive, with youth sport participation being strongly correlated with parental income. Participation rates for kids from families earning more than $ 100,000 are double that of kids from families earning $25,000 or less (Gregory, 2017). Participation rates are rising among wealthier kids with 70% of kids from households making $100,000 participating in sport. However, 33% of kids from families earning less than $25,000 are physically inactive, a percentage that is steadily increasing. On the other hand, only 10% of kids from families earning over $100,000 are physically inactive, with this percentage steadily declining since 2012 (Thompson, 2018).

Sport specialization

Many U.S. youth sport programs have seen a shift away from a focus on fun and learning skills to greater prioritized competition. Increasingly, sport programs are designed only for kids who are talented, with those lacking advanced skills being discouraged from participation (Gregory, 2017). With sport increasingly being offered only for the most talented, it is no wonder 70% of kids drop out of sport by age 13 (Corbin & Culp, 2019). An additional negative result of the increased focus on competition is the pressure to specialize in one sport at a young age, which increases the risk of injury, burnout, and depression (Gregory, 2017; Put- terman, 2019).

While many parents believe that their child will be most successful in their sport if they play the same sport year-round, ironically, specialization actually seems to decrease a child’s chance of succeeding in their chosen sport. Recent research shows that 88% of NCAA Division 1 athletes played two to three sports before college (Duffek, 2017; Gregory, 2017). Additionally, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred recently spoke out against sport specialization for youth athletes, citing a recent increase in MLB pitchers requiring elbow surgery. Orthopedists studying the increase in elbow surgery traced the problem back to overuse in youth baseball (Solomon, 2017b). The perceived need to specialize has led to training regimens closely resembling that of professional athletes and can cost $100/hour for a total cost of $20,000-$30,000 per year. (Eustis, 2020; Gregory, 2017).

Greater parental involvement

Prioritizing competition in youth sport has also led to greater parental involvement. When parents are spending vast amounts of money on sport participation, they are more likely to demand a return on their investment. The more money parents invest, the more the child reports feeling parental pressure which results in reduced enjoyment by the child (King & Rothlisberger, 2014). Likely adding to the pressure felt by youth athletes, websites offering athlete profiles and national rankings now feature kids as young as seven years old, while colleges have begun recruiting kids in the eighth grade (Gregory, 2017).

Parents defend increased spending and pressure to specialize in one sport because they believe it will increase their child’s chances of earning a college scholarship. This temptation to focus on a college scholarship is likely a result of NCAA Division 1 and II schools drastically increasing scholarships dollars from $250 million in the mid-1990s to over $3 billion in 2018 (Thompson, 2018).

However, NCAA programs have added many athletic programs during this time, and very few athletes actually receive a full scholarship. In fact, only 2% of high school athletes earn an athletic scholarship (NCAA, 2018), and the average scholarship granted is less than $11,000 (O’Shaughnessy, 2012).

Racial and gender inequity

Research shows that African-American youths are significantly more likely to play sports for the purpose of obtaining a college scholarship and becoming a professional athlete (Project Play, 2020). However, non-white kids start playing sport later in childhood and overall have fewer opportunities than white children (Project Play, 2020). Additionally, African-American kids are now three times more likely to play tackle football, a troubling trend due to the long-term health risks. However, football teams carry a large number of full scholarships and is one of the least expensive sports to play, making it attractive to lower-income participants (Project Play, 2020). Additionally, due to the lack of funding for youth sport programs, coaches are typically required to volunteer their time which results in most youth sport coaches either working for a nominal salary or no salary at all (Solomon, 2019). The result is a shortage of coaches in low-income communities which are already suffering from underrepresentation in youth sport.

Overall, 30% of girls ages 6-12 participate regularly in sport compared to 40% for boys (Solomon, 2019). One reason for this difference is that gender equity is generally not legally mandated in youth sport, even when it is community-based and publicly subsidized. Without such legal mandates, girls tend to have fewer opportunities. When considering community-based youth sport programs only 35% of the participants are girls (Turner, 2017). A few states have recognized this as a problem and have passed gender equity legislation aimed at municipal parks and recreation programs. In 2004, California passed AB 2404, the first law addressing gender equity in public recreation. The state of Washington followed suit in 2009 with a similar law. However, there remains much work to reach equity for girls in youth sport (Legal Aid at Work, n.d.; Turner, 2017). The focus on private club teams can further intensify gender inequity even in states with gender equity legislation because private organizations are not required to follow such laws.

Lack of training for coaches

Aspen Institute reports that there are 6.5 million youth sport coaches in the United States, but less than 20% have had recent training (within three years) related to important topics like sport skills, motivational techniques, safety/ first aid, and physical conditioning. Furthermore, approximately 50% of youth coaches have never received any training at all (Solomon, 2019). The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has published coaching standards since 1995 (including three updates) and most recently in 2018

(NASPE, 2018; USOC, 2018). However, not every youth sport organization has adopted these standards, nor does every youth sport organization requires coaches to be trained.

It is likely quite telling that NASPE contacted 59 youth sport governing bodies to determine their coaching education programs and only 15 organizations responded. All 15 respondents utilized a pre-season training and certification system, but there is no data on the remaining 44 organizations regarding coaching education and training (NASPE, 2018). A few national governing bodies do have mandated training for youth coaches including USA Hockey, US Soccer, USA Football & USA Rugby, while other organizations strongly recommend it, such as USA Lacrosse and USA Basketball. With a myriad of governing bodies overseeing youth sport, many kids are being coached by someone with absolutely no training, and possibly, lacking a background check. This lack of oversight has contributed to an overabundance of untrained coaches, escalating costs, and developmentally inappropriate methods.

New construction of youth sport megacomplexes

Spending on youth sport has rapidly increased by 55% since 2010 (Eustis, 2020). This massive spending has spurned many new youth-sport focused businesses, such as private training/coaching complexes, recruiting/ranking services, and large-scale tournament management (Gregory, 2017). Increasingly, communities are subsidizing the construction of youth sport complexes to encourage revenue- producing events. Starting with Disney’s Wide World of Sport in 2016, many cities have followed suit, (Drape, 2018; Gregory, 2017) partnering with major shoe companies like Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas. Some cities have passed on opportunities to host minor league baseball teams in favor of youth sport complexes since the potential for revenue is higher with youth sport (Gregory, 2017; Jimenez, 2018).

Current and future trends

There is currently some awareness that recent trends in youth sport are not all positive. Reform is needed to reduce the focus on competition, provide coach training/education, and allow greater access for all genders and kids from lower income families. While some NGBs are taking the lead in addressing reform in their respective sports, some states are undertaking more comprehensive efforts. For example, the state of Michigan has formed a commission to study and address equitable access to sport for all kids. One idea proposed by the Michigan Youth Sport Task Force is to utilize revenue from recently legalized sports betting to fund youth sport programs (Solomon, 2019).

Additionally, there are attempts to revitalize middle school sports which would improve access, reduce costs, and allow for better supervision and training of coaches. In an effort to encourage schools to offer sport for kids ages 10-13,

Project Play and Kellogg’s have joined forces to recognize the best middle school sports program in the United States. Through this search, the goal is to encourage communities to revitalize middle school sport, which is the time when most kids drop out of sport (Aspen Institute, 2020). In addition to middle school-based programs, community-based sport programs must be restored. Not only will publicly funded programs be more accessible to low-income youth, if the quality of the local sport program is sufficient, higher income kids will be less motivated to leave and join private club teams (Project Play, 2020). Lastly, a reenergized focus on community sport will provide better gender equity as school-based programs are required to abide by Title IX (educational gender equity).

Recognizing that youth sport should not mirror adult sport, the United States Olympic Committee addressed the need for reform, issuing the American Development Model (ADM) in 2014 (USOC, n.d.). This initiative focuses on age- appropriate sport development in order to prioritize athlete safety and promote long-term sustained physical activity. A key component of the ADM involves NGBs becoming more involved in youth sport to ensure programs have develop- mentally appropriate priorities.

The ADM is based on Canadian sport science research which focuses on long-term athlete development. It provides several recommendations related to universal access to sport for all youth, multi-sport participation, quality coach training, a focus on fun and skill development, and appropriate parental involvement. There are five stages of sport development discussed in the ADM, based on age. The report recommends that all kids are given the chance to play and learn a variety of sports through age 12, regardless of ability, in order to allow every child to develop an appreciation for sport. High-performance training is not recommended until after age 15 and specializing in only one sport is not recommended at any age (USOC, n.d.).

High school sports in the United States

High school sports are a uniquely American experiment. The marriage of the educational establishment and athletics largely began in the late nineteenth century and has grown in cultural significance, size, and scope. Educators framed the promotion of athletics as serving the whole student, providing opportunities for leadership and the development of a lifelong commitment to physical fitness. While parochial schools placed interscholastic sports as central to a strong Christian morality, public schools used similar nonreligious-based appeals to the development of good, personal character (Pruter, 2013).

In the book chronicling the first 50 years of American high school sport, Pruter (2013) examines three distinct time periods, framing the early years of high school sport as a battle for control by educational institutions. In a departure from the adult-controlled, heavily promoted, and institutionally entrenched culture of high school sport today, interscholastic sport began as student initiatives, with community organizations and adult sport clubs providing support. Later, high schools developed physical education programs, seeing sport teams and athletic competitions as a natural extension of new curriculums that focused on fitness. Administrators began to emphasize numerous positive outcomes from sport participation, however sports were only for boys at the time, and girl’s full participation in high school sport would take decades to achieve.

Beginning in the late 1800s, girls’ high school sport opportunities were largely intramural based, however the feminist wave that brought about suffrage, pushed for expanded opportunities for interscholastic competition in the early 1900s. This led to female-specific field days, featuring expanded track and field offerings (D’Ignazio, 2016). It wouldn’t be until the end of World War I that national federations would be established to provide standards for competition and rules for boys’ sports (Pruter, 2013). Because of concerns about the amount of time and money focused on interscholastic sport, as well as lack of coaching and injury rates, state associations were founded, leading to the National Federation of State High School Athletic Association in 1923. This organization would change its name to its current title, National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in the 1970s to be more inclusive of fine arts programs (Malina, Shields, & Gilbert, 2020).

In segregated America, separate organizations were created, often by African- American physical educators, to provide interscholastic opportunities for black students. The most well-known competition was the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament (N1BT), founded in 1929, which existed until 1967 (Wiggins &. Swanson, 2016). Started by Charles E. Williams, physical education director at Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, the event elevated the level of play for segregated high school teams, drawing participants mostly from Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the United States. Capitalizing on the success of the NIBT, several other similar tournaments were created throughout the first half of the twentieth century (Hawkins, Cooper, Carter-Francique, & Cavil, 2015).

As the nation plunged into the Great Depression in the 1930s and through its economic emergence from World War II, birth rates increased rapidly, and high school sport grew in both community significance and student participation. Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision in 1954 ushered in desegregated athletic opportunities, though states integrated on various timelines (Pruter, 2013). Female students could participate in fitness offerings, but it would take federal legislation in the form of Title IX in 1972 to open doors to competitive sport for girls. The 1980s and 1990s saw significant cultural shifts that led to greater commercialization in interscholastic athletics. The rising prominence of elite club teams, escalation of athletic scouting and college recruitment, and expansion of 24/7 sport news and social media platforms placed more emphasis on high school sports. Today, these trends continue to shape the current challenges and issues faced by athletes, schools, coaches, and communities.

Structure of high school sport and policies

The role of facilitating high school sports is largely left to each state to oversee and organize, however there are several governance structures that have been widely adopted. The NFHS is the primary governance organization that oversees the majority of sports offered in American high schools. This group provides rules for sports and is structured through individual state associations. Both public and private high schools are members, however some states have separate associations for non-publicly funded schools. In those states, private high schools are affiliate members of NFHS, while their public counterparts are considered full members. Iowa is the only state that has a separate association based on gender. The Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA), a full member of NFHS, oversees all male sports, while the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU), an affiliate member of NFHS, governs girls’ inter- scholastic athletics (NFHS, n.d.-a).

Largely, the work of NFHS is delegated to decentralized state associations. These state associations are made up of a Board of Directors, overseeing the work of numerous standing committees. Each sport offered by the state association is directed by a standing committee, which organizes championship events. In addition, there are committees that focus on non-sport specific areas such as sport medicine, officials/rules, and fair play. State associations are also a clearinghouse for numerous scholarships and individual awards, while many also host leadership conferences promoting educational opportunities for students (NFHS, n.d.-a).

While there exists some variance in organizational structures throughout primary education, high school athletic departments are typically led by an Athletic Director who then reports to a Principal. In more decentralized districts with multiple high schools, the Athletic Director reports directly to the Superintendent. Three areas that a Director of Athletics will generally oversee include facility operations, team management/coaches, and medical services.

Affiliate organizations

High school athletics has its roots across the American landscape; thus, many organizations, governmental bodies, and private sector companies are deeply entrenched in daily operations. Three organizations that exert considerable influence on high school sports are the AAU, American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP), and private, for-profit, sport development academies. While these organizations exist in the space of high school athletics, the purpose behind their existence is different. For-profit sport development schools serve as athletic training centers and represent a new trend of providing a professional training experience at the high school level. The AAU is one of the largest non-profit volunteer sport governing bodies overseeing youth athletics, and the AAASP’s focus is on inclusive opportunities for athletes with disabilities.

Amateur Athletic Union

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was established in 1888, however it wasn’t until cultural forces within youth sport and a trend toward sport specialization catapulted the organization into its current power and prominence in the athletic landscape. Focused on amateur sports and the physical well-being, the largely volunteer-based organization sponsors 41 sports programs across the country (AAU, n.d.).

While the AAU sponsors dozens of different sports, its role in grassroots development, particularly in boys’ basketball, has come under considerable scrutiny. Visibility to college coaches and scouts through AAU basketball tournaments and elite teams has led to traditional high school basketball becoming less significant in college pathways for student athletes. Several NBA superstars, who came through the AAU system, reflect that winning has become more important than developing individual and team skills (Eferighe, 2017). Yet, criticism extends beyond the court. In an article discussing AAU dominance, authors cite the problematic role that shoe companies have played. As Morgan McDaniel writes:

For a league once dedicated to youth development and skill-building, AAU programs have now become hunting grounds for athletic apparel and shoe companies. Nike, Adidas, and now Under Armour have been pouring loads of money into AAU programs for years and they’re using every tool in their arsenal to influence highly coveted recruits.

(McDaniel, 2017, para. 4)

Another area of concern by educators and parent associations is the lack of academic eligibility guidelines for AAU participation. While state high school athletic associations often require passing grades in core classes to participate, AAU does not include any academic standards as part of their eligibility guidelines. AAU basketball, for example, only requires that participants furnish proof of age and grade level, with no academic standard that must be met. In comparison, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) requires that all high school athletes must be enrolled in and earn passing grades in five core subjects to participate in athletics (OHSAA, 2019). Without requiring academic standards as part of athletic eligibility, AAU likely has an advantage in drawing athletes away from traditional high school teams.

American Association of Adapted Sports Programs

Founded in the wake of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs (AAASP) is a not-for-profit association that works with the NFHS and state high school sport associations to develop adapted sport programs for students with disabilities. Serving over 5,600 students, AAASP sponsors wheelchair programs in handball, basketball, football, and track and field. In addition to overseeing sports, the association develops rules and guidelines, provides coach and official training programs, and works with school districts on needs assessments and resource development (AAASP, n.d.).

For-profit private sport development academies

While sport development academies have existed for some sports since the early 1970s, they have taken on greater prominence in recent years. IMG Academy is one such example which considers itself a world-class boarding school focused on the student-athlete experience. Located in Bradenton, Florida, the core values of social responsibility, character development, and integrity are integrated into both the academic and athletic pursuits of students. Catering to the increasingly competitive culture surrounding college athletic scholarships, IMG boasts a long list of alumni and markets itself as “the ultimate training ground for passionate student-athletes" (IMG, n.d.). With world-class facilities, elite coaching, video analysis, rigorous competition scheduling, and support staff, IMG utilizes a player development model found elsewhere only in elite collegiate sport and professional athletics. The ability for student-athletes to train and learn does not come cheap however, as tuition ranges between $63,400 and $83,400 based on age, boarding options, and specific sport (IMG, n.d.). The Academy does not offer scholarships, however there is financial aid available for accepted athletes. In addition, IMG offers postgraduate programs for students who are delaying enrollment in college.

Participation trends

NFHS reported in 2018-2019 the first decline in high school participation in the past 30 years. While the previous year marked an all-time high at over 7.9 million participants, the decline was largely attributed to lower numbers in boys’ and girls’ basketball and especially the loss of players in football. The 11-person football participation reached its lowest mark since 2000, with just over one million players, however the number of schools sponsoring the sport remained consistent. Though 11-person football participation is steadily declining, NFHS indicated the alternative football formats of six-to-nine-player teams are showing increases (NFHS, 2019). In the wake of several highly publicized concussion studies and NFL veteran player deaths, risks associated with contact sport participation, most notably, football, became almost daily news and started a national conversation about whether football should be sponsored at the youth and high school level (Mahaffey, 2012). In the wake of the controversy, football participation numbers at both the high school and youth numbers have reached historic lows.

An interesting trend in high school football is the number of girls participating in high school football doubling in the past decade, with over 2,400

females playing on high school teams during the 2018-2019 season. This number ignores the growing number of high school districts now sponsoring flag football as a varsity sport for girls. Florida, with 250 flag football programs, became the first state to sanction flag football as a championship varsity sport in 2002. Georgia, New York City, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have all followed, with participation and interest in flag football continuing to rise (Villa, 2012). Forbes magazine covered the NFHS report and provided some key highlights of trends over the past decade in high school sport participation (Cook, 2019). They noted:

  • • Boys’ participation fell faster than that of girls, though girls still only account for 42.9% of athletes.
  • • Participation in baseball and girls’ competitive cheer continues to increase.
  • • Girls participation in wrestling has grown 250% since 2010.
  • • Golf participation continues to decrease.
  • • Track and field and cross-country are the most popular sports for no-cut teams.
  • • Sport specialization is a likely factor in downward participation numbers.
  • • The impact of more elite club competitions “weeding out” athletes earlier is a possible factor, leading to lowered participation rates, though difficult to measure specific effect.

While some declines in overall participation may be sport specific, Derek Thompson argues American meritocracy, rising costs, and hyper-specialization have led to kids opting out or economically being shut out of sport (Thompson, 2018). See Table 5.2 for an overview of sport participation trends at the high school level.

Table 5.2 Overview of High School Sport Participation Trends

NFHS Boys’ Sport Participation, 2008-2009 to 2018-2019


2008-2009 Boys’ Participation

2 018-2 019 Boys ’ Participation


l.l 12,303

1,006,013 (decline)































NFHS Girls’ Sport Participation, 2008-2009 to 2018-2019


2008-2009 Girls’ Participation

2018-2019 Girls’ Participation









399,067 (decline)

















1 17,793








Source: Adapted from Cook, 2019.

Current issues and trends

The role of athletics in high school life: communities, coaches, and athletes

Sport plays a unique role in the American educational system, which is especially evident when considering the rare perspective of international students studying abroad in America. When recently surveyed, nine out of ten foreign students reflect that kids tend to care more about sports than their friends back in their home country. This raises questions regarding the attention and funding dedicated to interscholastic sports and whether it furthers the educational mission of the American school system (Ripley, 2013).

With increasing media interest, elite club development, and a race for college scholarships, the culture of high school sport has transformed in the past thirty years with winning becoming paramount in gyms and fields across the country. With that culture shift has come numerous high-profile coaching and recruitment scandals. Emotional and physical abuse by coaches, an issue paramount throughout youth sport, is relevant at the high school level, as schools and conferences have worked to strengthen coaching education programs, while establishing no-tolerance policies for abusers.

Public vs private schools: parity issues

The U.S. educational system primarily comprises taxpayer-funded public schools, religiously affiliated private schools, and non-parochial private schools. While states provide much guidance regarding assessment and standards, there exists considerable parity issues between schools, both within conferences and between public and private schools. The issue of competitive balance among conference schools, particularly as they relate to public vs. private sport programs, has been a focus of many state high school associations. In Ohio, for example, private schools won 43% of state championships in 2019, though they represented only 16% of OHS A A membership. Several sports exceeded the overall average, with non-public schools winning titles in football (56%), boys’ soccer (80%), and girls’ soccer (77%) over the last decade (Porter, 2019). Ohio was one of several states to implement new tiered conference structures based on enrollment and revised transfer eligibility guidelines in the hope of leveling the playing field.

Concerns regarding fair play extend to the athletes themselves, as budget cuts have impacted all aspects of education. The Public School Review identified several ways that schools are dealing with budget shortfalls, including utilizing identical travel schedules for boys’ and girls’ sports to saving on bus/transportation fees, only playing schools in immediate vicinity and the elimination of full-time athletic trainers (Chen, 2018). Moreover, increasingly, schools are transferring costs to parents and guardians in the form of expanded pay-to-play policies. The legality of charging fees to participate in high school sport is governed by individual states, however the use of fees is widespread. Researchers at the University of Michigan reported that the average high school fee for sport participation is $161, with 18% of students paying $200 or more per sport. They went on to note that when combining pay-to-play fees with the cost of equipment and travel, the average American high school student pays $408 to play high school sport (Mostafavi, 2019).

While many of these cost-saving measures have drawn criticism, the expanded use of player fees to support high school athletics has posed a threat to a historic mission of public education, namely economic inclusivity and access to educational programs. Participation fees represent a significant barrier for low-income students to receive the benefits from playing sports. High school “pay-to-play” is primarily structured in two ways. One model utilizes one flat fee covering a year of sport participation for a student, while an alternative system has a separate fee for each sport, often charging more for sports that are more expensive to offer. Though many schools provide fee waivers for low-income students, research has shown that only 6% of students who apply are granted waivers (Bucy, 2013).

Student access issues

Various federal laws address high school sport access for students with disabilities. Though courts have ruled that there is no constitutional right to participate in scholastic athletic programs, some students have been successful in utilizing other areas of law to fight for accommodations to participate in high school sports. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, American with Disabilities Act, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act all address disability access in education, often with athletics falling under the guidelines (Green, 2019).

In addition, the ability of transgender students to participate openly in high school athletics has been a cultural flash point in the fight for greater inclusion throughout society. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network

(GLSEN) reports that in 2019, 18 states had policies that prohibited participation by transgender athletes, while another 13 had no standard public policies to inform and direct administrators seeking guidance on promoting accessibility (GLSEN, n.d.). While this is an emerging area of law, school districts that promote athletics as a site for positive student development should make programs accessible to all students in accordance with the overall mission of public schools (GLSEN, n.d.).

Legal issues and risk management

Title IX, while largely discussed in the context of equity in intercollegiate athletics, has similar implications and applications to high school sport. Passed in 1972, it prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs that receive federal financial assistance. Though there have been interpretative challenges from the beginning, Title IX led to expanded sport opportunities for females, as well as greater equity in the experience. Today, 43% of all interscholastic participants are women (Cook, 2019). Since high school sport is largely governed by decentralized state associations, there is no central body that collects Title IX compliance data, and this poses challenges to gaining a broad perspective of compliance (McKinney, 2019). In 1972, when Title IX became law only 290,000 girls participated in high school athletics (Stader St Surface, 2014). While participation numbers have soared, the battle over Title IX enforcement has been fought in numerous court cases, dealing with a wide variety of equity issues. Communities for Equity v. Michigan HSSA (2001) addressed the unfairness of scheduling girls’ games in nontraditional seasons, while Veronica Ollier v. Sweetwater Union High School District (2009) focused on gender-based disparities in athletic facilities and sport opportunities (Stader & Surface, 2014). As the scope of Title IX continues to shift, school districts will continue to wrestle with the mandate to provide sport opportunities free of discrimination based on sex.

A key focus of risk management involves tracking and minimizing athlete injury rates. Recent focus has highlighted the great importance of certified athletic trainers in the lives of high school athletes including their key responsibilities as overseeing general care of student-athletes, coordinating care with teachers and staff, directing preventative care and strength/conditioning, providing referrals and expediting medical care, and developing emergency action plans (Cooper, 2015). In addition, athletic trainers are often managing significant administrative tasks and paperwork in compliance with federal and state privacy laws. While their job touches the lives of all athletes, many schools do not have a dedicated athletic trainer. Recent research indicates that while 70% of secondary schools provide athletic trainers at games and practices, only 37% have a full-time athletic trainer on staff. Though most schools now do employ part-time trainers to cover sports (a decade ago it was only 42%), budget struggles and small school size often require the outsourcing of athletic training services (Pryor et al., 2015).

Unique/emerging sports

High school rugby

While rugby experienced explosive growth at the youth and high school level at the beginning of the century, the last decade has seen even higher numbers. Youth participation in rugby grew 81% between 2008 and 2013, outpacing both lacrosse and hockey (Antoniacci, 2016). However, along with football, the contact nature of rugby lends it to similar concussion concerns, with both sports experiencing a participation decline in the last five years. Current reports indicate that approximately 35,000 high school students are playing rugby, which is ten times the number of participants from a decade ago (York, 2017). Furthermore, the development of women’s rugby as an emerging NCAA sport has opened up scholarship dollars as well as high performance opportunities that have attracted many athletes to transition from other sports. The reemergence of rugby sevens in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, as well as the development of a domestic professional league, Major League Rugby, and expanded scholarship opportunities with women’s rugby as a NCAA varsity sport have led to greater interest in the sport overall.

USA Rugby has sanctioned State Rugby Organizations (SROs) to oversee the sport at both high school and youth levels. Tire governing stmctures utilized include a central organization overseeing an entire state, with regional organizations facilitating the game in adjacent states. Larger states such as California have divided oversight geographically, with separate organizations for Northern and Southern California. Massachusetts became the first state high school athletics association to include rugby under its leadership in 2017 (USA Rugby, n.d.). USA Rugby provides various resources to high school administrators interested in creating a rugby program. Reasons behind the expansion at the high school level include the relative low cost of program development, limited equipment required for the sport, mgby’s position as a global game, and an opportunity for girls to participate in a contact sport. Moreover, USA Rugby boasts that with girls’ rosters often exceeding 30 players, rugby has the potential to help schools meet gender equity goals (USA Rugby, n.d.).

Ice hockey development system

Ice hockey in the United States utilizes a unique youth development structure, one that may possibly serve as a model for other sports (Leitner, 2016; USHL, n.d.; NA3HL, n.d.; EHL, n.d.; NAHL, n.d.). See Table 5.3 for an overview of the U.S. ice hockey youth developmental system. The youth hockey system is governed by USA Hockey, follows the USA Hockey American Development Model (ADM), and mirrors the Canadian system. It is important that developmental models are the same in United States and Canada because once kids reach age 15 there is significant crossover between American and Canadian hockey athletes. Through the ADM, USA Hockey provides in-depth resources for teams, leagues, and coaches including age-specific practice plans. The ADM acknowledges that youth hockey is not exclusively a pathway for elite performance, but rather the

Table 5.3 US Ice Hockey Developmental System




Season Costs

House Leagues

Development, fun, no travel 1 practice, 1 game per week


$300-1,000 plus gear

Travel Leagues

More competitive focus, regional travel Multiple practices and games per week



plus travel and better equipment

Junior Tier III 56 teams

Very competitive, some players live away from home, 50 games per season


All travel and housing

JuniorTier II 26 teams

Very competitive, many players live away from home, still attend high school, 60 games per season


Housing/food costs

JuniorTier 1 16 teams

Most competitive, players live away from home, some attend online school only, 60-game schedule



goal is for all kids to be included, recognizing differing motivations and lifelong goals such as activity, health, fitness, and fun. USA Hockey has been at the forefront of developing an appropriate youth sport development model that does not hyper focus on competition. In addition, USA Hockey has banned checking and eliminated national championships for players under the age of 12. Many believe this combination of reforms has led participation in hockey to grow to an all-time high (Thompson, 2018; USA Hockey, n.d.).

The biggest difference in ice hockey development occurs at age 15, since participation on a high school team is not the traditional path to a professional or a collegiate hockey career. Instead, the most talented players move to the Junior Hockey system (Madsen, Smith, Edwards, Gentile, & Wayne, 2019; Edwards, 2012). Junior Hockey leagues comprise private teams in three different tiers based on player ability, with athletes being able to participate until age 20. Tier 1 consists of only 16 teams whose players are typically hoping to be drafted into the NHL or earning a spot on an NCAA Division 1 team. Tier II has 27 teams, and these players are mostly focused on NCAA Division I and Division II. Tier III has many more teams with most players aspiring to play NCAA Division III or for a higher Junior Hockey tier. The reason this system is deemed to be more successful than other team sports (i.e., basketball, football) is that the hockey developmental system lasts until age 20, with the most talented players directly moving into a professional career. Hockey players who attend college, desire a college education and are not in college for the purpose of pursuing a professional sport career (Madsen et al., 2019).


As esports have surged in popularity worldwide, American high schools created programs to meet student demand for competitive gaming opportunities. By the end of 2019, 17 states and the District of Columbia were offering high school competitive esports teams (Juhasz, 2020). Unlike traditional sports, esports are based on proprietary' gaming platforms, with various governing bodies seeking to gain legitimacy and control over this emerging high school sport. With nearly 200 colleges now offering competitive scholarship-eligible teams in esports, student interest in gaming is only increasing (NFHS, n.d.-b).

The NFHS, already the primary governing body for high school sports, became official partners with PlayVS, to establish esports as an officially recognized varsity sport (NFHS, n.d.-b). In states that sponsor esports, PlayVS helps administer state championships in Rocket League and League of Legends, with additional Fortnite and SMITE programming. PlayVS provides schools and individual state associations the online platform to management teams, organize weekly schedules, tabulate stats, and oversee both fall and spring esports seasons (PlayVS, n.d.). NFHS and schools oversee eligibility rules, while PlayVS facilitates the gaming interface and partnership with publishers. Along with PlayVS, there are several other companies in the space, including High School Esports League (HSEL) and North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF) which sponsor teams and tournaments across various platforms.


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Chapter 6

Issues, challenges, and suggestions for youth sports in America

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