Report: Cuts to youth sports contribute to obesity, violence

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009; 3:13 PM

A new report says that $2 billion in cuts to school-based sports and physical education programs are contributing to a range of problems afflicting the nation's youth, including obesity, violence and academic failure.

The report by Up2Us, a New York City-based coalition of groups that are lobbying to save such programs, was released this week as more than 150 researchers, coaches and leaders of non-profit groups gathered in Washington for a conference on the fate of youth sports in an age of budget cutbacks.

"Youth sports is in serious decline in this country," said Brian Greenwood, an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, who helped author the study. "We can't afford that potential negative impact. If a kid doesn't have somewhere to go, something to do to occupy their time, unfortunately what they do more often than not is they end up in trouble."

The $2 billion figure cited in the report was extrapolated from 23 school district budgets. Most Washington area schools have not lost many sports programs yet. Players, coaches and parents rallied last year to reverse proposals by some districts to slash sports and introduce participation fees.

But athletics during and after school hours in the District already are bare-bones compared to their suburban counterparts, advocates said. About half the city's middle and high schools teach required physical education courses for all grades, as opposed to three-quarters of schools in Maryland that do so, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"A lot of stuff happening during the school day is strict test-prep and all that's needed to get kids up to the standards," said Amy Nakamoto, executive director of DC Scores, a nonprofit that provides after-school programs in soccer and poetry for more than 700 students at 23 public and public charter schools in the District. "We provide a service that the school district's not able to provide right now."

District nonprofits already are helping to shoulder the burden of providing opportunities to exercise. DC Scores, for example, hires 80 public and charter school teachers to run its after school programs and, at a cost of $90,000 a year, runs a school soccer league for middle-schoolers.

Elsewhere in the Washington region, wealthier school districts have managed to keep sports programs largely intact.

In Fairfax, supporters of high school gymnastics and indoor track saved those sports from elimination this year. But now the district is facing a $176 million projected deficit for next year and Bill Curran, director of student activities and athletics, said he expects to be forced to slice sports' $4 million operating budget in half.

Under consideration are measures such as eliminating freshman and junior varsity teams and charging participation fees of $25 to $100. "It's going to be drastic," Curran said.

Schools in Prince George's County have avoided fees and wholesale elimination of sports, finding other ways to save, according to spokesman MosesAlexander Greene. Starting last year, teams were limited to two scrimmages, allowed to travel no more than 50 miles one-way for games and asked to share buses with other teams to reduce transportation costs. At the middle school level, each sport's season was been shortened by two contests this year.

Spokespeople for schools in the District, Prince William, Arlington and Montgomery counties said their programs remained unchanged this year. The latter charges a $30 annual fee for participation in any extracurricular activity.

Loudoun County now charges a $100-per-sport fee to play high school sports, a move that will raise $770,000. So far, it has not affected participation rates, said district spokesman Wayde Byard.

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