From the 2014 Health Matters Conference: Bringing Sport into the Health Conversation

January 13, 2014  • Tom Farrey

Tom Farrey is director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program and an ESPN reporter. The Clinton Foundation is a partner in the Institute’s Project Play initiative, helping organizations act on ideas presented at its events.

Tune in to watch the third annual Health Matters conference live on Tuesday at 9 a.m. PST at where President Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and leading health and wellness experts will discuss how leaders from across sectors are improving health and wellness for millions of people across the country. Join the conversation @AspenInstSports #ProjectPlay, @ClintonFdn #HealthMatters2014, and watch the televised @ESPN #KidsAndSports Town Hall on ESPN2 on Feb. 9 at 9 p.m. EST.

Just over a century ago, adults began to organize the play activities of American children. President Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House extolling the virtues of robust exercise, and sports began to be seen by various stakeholder groups as a tool of nation-building. At the center of this focused effort were health leaders such as Dr. Luther Gulick, who helped conceptualize PE and inspired the creation of volleyball and basketball (as James Naismith’s boss at the YMCA), then introduced sports competition into the New York public school system and worked to get thousands of urban parks and playfields built in the first two decades of the 20th century. 

The original Yankee Stadium was called “the house that Ruth built.” But it was just as much the house that Luther Gulick and his peers built, populated by the first generation of fans who had broad access to sport participation opportunities as kids. Love of game starts with playing it. The industry of professional sports today is laid atop the infrastructure of children’s sports envisioned during the Progressive Era. 

The Aspen Institute Project Play initiative is helping to keep health in the sports conversation, and sports in the health conversation. With support from the Clinton Foundation, ESPN, Nike, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the thought leadership exercise facilitates dialogue on how to deliver more early positive experiences to more kids, so they can live better, healthier lives. Tonight’s ESPN Town Hall at the Clinton Health Matters Conference with President Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, and so many other terrific guests — to be aired on February 9 — is a significant step forward, bringing this important conversation to a national audience.

Sport remains a powerful tool of human development. The social, educational, physical, and other benefits that flow to individuals are well-documented. Yet, the most reliable surveys show that less than one in three children between the ages six to 17 play sports on a regular basis, due in part to significant shifts over the past generation or so in how sports are experienced. Largely gone is the era of sandlot or pickup play. Today, adult-led organized competition dominates, and tryout-based, multi-season travel teams form as early as age six. Support has moved away from in-town recreational leagues as well as school PE, recess, and intramurals — often the only sport options for the economically or physically disadvantaged, the child of a single parent, the late bloomer, and the kid who needs exercise as much or more than any other, the clinically obese.

If you live in a suburb or small town, or a wealthier urban area like Manhattan, the issue of access may seem odd. On Saturday mornings, the parks seem filled with kids in uniforms. It’s often a different story in distressed cities such as Detroit, Michigan, and New Orleans, Louisiana, or on many Native American reservations. These areas lack facilities and families often can’t afford the youth sports arms race —the club teams, $200 bats, and out-of-state tournaments. The business of youth sports has never been bigger: by one conservative estimate it’s a $5 billion a year industry. But a lot of that cash is wrung from the families of the 19 percent of kids (9.4 million) who play on not just a regular but a frequent basis, often one sport year-round in pursuit of college scholarships.

That highly committed group of athletes, in turn, faces its own set of modern health issues: overuse injuries; burnout; concussions. These are problems of excess, of being fed sports with a fire hose — and further evidence we have morphed into a nation of sport haves and have nots.

Gulick and his contemporaries didn’t get everything right. They underestimated girls, who were thought to be too fragile for contact sports. It took 70 years to begin to fix that error, via Title IX. Still, there was an original ethos of sport for all, grounded in the interests of public health.

Identifying solutions that serve all kids requires systems thinking, how the key institutions and policies can best work together to get and keep them engaged. At a Project Play roundtable in September, the US Olympic Committee’s coaching director heard broad support for the notion of anchoring our disjointed sport system in the principles of age-/developmentally appropriate play. Today, through the Clinton Foundation, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun introduced the American Development Model, a five-stage pathway that proposes to reduce attrition through better recognition of kids’ physical, mental, and emotional abilities. He pledged to work with all 47 national sport governing bodies to endorse the model. 

The Aspen Method is all about talk that leads to action. So let’s keep talking. That so many prominent figures are now joining the dialogue at this ESPN Town Hall at the Clinton Health Matters Conference — from the former president, to Bryant, to Allyson Felix, to Herschel Walker, and Matt Kemp — can only lead to more breakthrough ideas at the intersection of sport and health.