Program Recap: How Sports in 2018 Inspired a Better Society

December 18, 2018  • Jon Solomon

The mission of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program is to convene leaders, foster dialogue, and inspire solutions that help sport serve the public interest, with a focus on the development of healthy children and communities. In 2018, that took many different forms as knowledge was deepened and breakthrough strategies were explored on a range of issues.

The future of football was examined as more children turn to flag. A model to pay college athletes was tested. An idea to use sports betting for the public good was raised. Athletes explained why they’re speaking out more on social and political issues.

Kobe Bryant talked with kids about their sports experiences. Tools got created to keep children active and healthy in sports. Communities acted on our youth sports recommendations and strategies as part of the Project Play initiative.

We’re not naive. Sport in and of itself won’t solve all of society’s problems. But as shown in 2018 from the Sports & Society Program’s work, sport – when delivered well to serve the public good – can inspire, challenge and lead us to a better society.

future of football report cover

Future of Sports

The Sports & Society Program debuted a new conversation series, Future of Sports, that thought through some of the biggest ideas on the horizon in sports.

  • Future of Football: What if flag became the standard way of playing the game until high school? The Sports & Society Program’s flag football report analyzed the potential implications in a number of areas of such a change, and the analysis received widespread media attention.
  • Future of College Sports: What if athletes were allowed to be paid off their own name, image and likeness? Former Wisconsin basketball star Nigel Hayes revealed he and his teammates almost boycotted a major game in 2016. An Aspen Institute article examined the history behind NCAA amateurism.

Project Play Summit

Kobe Bryant, Tony Hawk, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee were among the guest speakers in October for the annual Summit, which brought together domestic and international trailblazers to share ideas on how to build healthy kids and communities through sports. More than 400 people attended the sold-out Summit. Facebook Live sessions reached 928,000 people and generated 82,000 views. The conversations with Bryant and Hawk were the top-viewed video posts of the year on the Aspen Institute Facebook page.

The annual national State of Play report was released. Watch and read about all of the Summit sessions here. Listen to a podcast with three Olympic athletes explaining why mixed-gender competition could improve their sports and reframe how our culture thinks about gender.

New Youth Sports Tools
  • Play healthy: Healthy Sport Index was launched in partnership with Hospital for Special Surgery, marking the first time the public can identify in one place the relative benefits and risks of participating in the 10 most popular high school sports for boys and girls. The tool combines the best available data and expert analysis while allowing users to customize sport-by-sport results through their own health priorities for participation. TIME wrote that the Healthy Sport Index “couldn’t be more timely” for parents to navigate the confusing youth sports scene.

  • Train coaches: How To Coach Kids aggregates resources to train coaches by sport and topic, and includes a new, free 30-minute course on the general principles of coaching children through age 12. Co-developed by Nike and the US Olympic Committee with the help of the Aspen Institute, the resource was inspired by Project Play 2020, a multiyear effort by leading organizations to grow national sport participation rates and related metrics among youth.
  • Educate parents: The Project Play Parent Checklists provide 10 simple questions and an accompanying video that parents should ask of themselves, their child, and their sports provider to make sports a great experience. Navigating youth sports can be confusing and frustrating, and parents often don’t know what questions to ask. The checklists and accompanying resources help parents build an athlete for life.
Project Play 2020

project play logos

Amazon, ESPN, National Hockey League, and US Tennis Association joined Project Play 2020 in 2018, completing the set of 20 organizations at the center of efforts to mobilize the industry to improve youth sports participation. Members commit to developing new, specific, mutually-reinforcing actions consistent with the vision and framework of Project Play.

Project Play worked with the Associated of Chief Executives of Sport to help national sport organizations develop more policies and partnerships that are supportive of sport sampling. It’s a key step. In today’s youth sports arms race, telling kids to play other sports can feel like an act of unilateral disarmament. See which national sport organizations are promoting sport sampling more than others.

Project Play Champions recognized 20 organizations for the new commitments they’ve made aligned around Project Play strategies.

Youth Sports Community Work

Project Play produced two more local State of Play youth sports reports – Harlem, New York in April and Mobile County, Alabama in October – bringing the total to six. The next reports in 2019 were announced: State of Play: Hawai’i and State of Play: Seattle-King County.

state of play harlem report

The Harlem report assessed youth sports in a largely Latino community. Our effort to build healthy communities through sports was publicly supported by Congressman Adriano Espaillat (NY-13). Project Play: Harlem facilitated with NYC Sports Connection the creation of an East Harlem Community Sport Program Portal, a citywide sports listing platform and forum for the youth sports community.

The Mobile County report was Project Play’s first venture into the Southeast and the first landscape of youth sports entirely of a single U.S county. Among the key findings in the report: there are fewer sports opportunities for girls in Mobile County and one-quarter of youth said they have played in a game where adults bet money on the result.

state of play mobile county report

Project Play: Baltimore completed its work in 2018 after two years on the ground in East Baltimore. Among the accomplishments: collaboration with USA Field Hockey and the Living Classrooms Foundation to create field hockey clinics and launch a middle school league; building a partnership between USA Swimming Foundation and Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP) to host a clinic with Olympian Cullen Jones and help BCRP become eligible for grants up to $15,000 to support swimming needs citywide; and helping Banner Neighborhoods Community Corporation receive a $290,000 grant from the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund.

The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, a partner of Project Play in youth sports activation efforts, invested $200 million in parks and greenways in Southeast Michigan and Western New York. The Wilson Foundation draws on Project Play’s State of Play reports for those regions to inform its grantmaking. Project Play: Western New York and Project Play: Southeast Michigan were officially launched. Among the activation efforts in the Wilson Foundation regions:

  • Southeast Michigan: Project Play works with the four YMCAs active in the region to support the development of a YMCA Positive Play Initiative to expand free play and sports sampling opportunities. Staff with the Detroit Lions, Detroit Tigers, Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings have joined a work group to support efforts to expand access to sports and play, starting with the Pistons’ Basketball for All program. The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University is conducting a deep dive into coach training, with the support of the Project Play: Southeast Michigan coach training work group.
  • Western New York: Project Play, Algonquin Sports for Kids and Victory Sports Global Outreach, along with local libraries and park systems, are developing an equipment sharing and lending program to expand access to free play and sports sampling opportunities. Track and field coaches and officials have strategized about the return of recreational summer track and field meets. Stakeholders on Buffalo’s East Side have partnered to redevelop a former YMCA, used by the African-American community, into a community center and youth sports complex.
  • Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes: The Rochester Area Community Foundation has awarded $329,000 to 20 organizations that serve over 6,500 kids, thanks to the first round of Legacy Fund grants. Rochester Challenger Miracle Baseball, highlighted in the region’s State of Play report, received a grant of more than $400,000 to build out and operate Rochester’s only adaptive youth baseball park. The State of Play report identified the area as having the ingredients to be a hub for action sports. Rochester has approved the construction of the $2 million Roc City Skatepark with funding support from the Tony Hawk Foundation and the State of New York.Also in 2018, the Project Play Teamwork Toolkit was announced for debut in early 2019. Parents, sport leaders, civic and school leaders, non-profits and others will be able to use the digital platform to help build Sport for All, Play for Life communities. The toolkit draws on knowledge the Aspen Institute has acquired from landscaping the state of play for youth in several cities, counties and regions.
Media Coverage

Among the many outlets that cited the Sports & Society Program’s initiatives in 2018 were:

  • The New York Times: Youth soccer participation has fallen significantly in America
  • The Washington Post: Youth sports still struggling with dropping participation, high costs, bad coaches, study finds
  • The Wall Street Journal: Children should avoid tackle football before high school, report says
  • The Atlantic: American meritocracy is killing youth sports
  • Fox News: High schools dropping football amid participation slump
  • NBC News: Ivanka Trump: The Olympics prove America is stronger when kids from all backgrounds play sports
  • CBS This Morning: Hope Solo continues fight for change with bid for U.S. Soccer presidency
  • Forbes: What is the best sport for you? Try the Healthy Sport Index
  • Sports Illustrated: New Aspen Institute study suggests that flag football should be the standard until high school
  • Bloomberg: Brain damage, the Super Bowl and me
  • USA Today: Ex-Wisconsin player Nigel Hayes says team discussed game boycott to protest NCAA compensation
  • Associated Press: Coach Kobe: Bryant shares philosophies on how to reach kids

Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Follow him on Twitter at @JonSolomonAspen and email him at To learn more about Project Play, visit

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