Why We’re Reimagining School Sports in America

June 22, 2020  • Tom Farrey

Two years ago, University of Ohio scholar and former college wrestler B. David Ridpath penned a book, Alternative Models of Sports Development in America: Solutions to a Crisis in Education and Public Health. The book compared the sport development systems of Europe to that of the United States, which is unique in that so much activity runs through schools, a model put in place for more than a century ago to foster mass participation. He asked me to write the foreword.

What I proffered:

What’s clear to me, having studied our sports system as an author and journalist for 30 years, is that the day will come when the role of sports in schools gets reappraised and updated by its key stakeholders. This day could come suddenly, and from any of several angles.

That day is here.

It’s been brought on by a couple of events that were anticipated. One was legal action changing the economic relationship between universities and athletes, which turned out to be states passing laws that allow NCAA athletes to market their name, image, and likeness like all other students. The other was a unilateral industry action, the NBA taking control of its talent pipeline by fostering youth programs and signing prospects to contracts right out of high school.

Together, these moves recognize that sports, today, is business. But it remains so much more than that as well, and the so much more than that part, which impacts the 99.9% of high school students who never make a career of sports, is now under unprecedented levels of stress.

On the one hand, the global pandemic that is COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of the institution of school sports to adolescents. With all activity shut down since March, we have a heightened appreciation of the documented social, emotional, cognitive, academic, physical, and mental health benefits that flow to those whose bodies are in motion. On the other hand, when school sports return, administrators will have fewer resources to deliver such experiences to students, due in part to budget cutbacks flowing from the nation’s economic fallout.

Pre-COVID-19, the supply of experiences made available to students was not meeting the demand for them. Offer them a sport experience tailored to their needs and interests, led by a caring coach, and most are in. But only 39% of students play high school sports, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Rates are lowest in urban (32%), high-poverty (27%), and charter (19%) schools.

That’s why our Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute is launching a new phase of Project Play – “Reimagining School Sports in America.” The multiyear initiative consists of a national search to find high schools that are exemplary in providing or connecting the broadest reach of the student population with quality sport experiences. Any school can apply, with the winners receiving $160,000 total in awards made possible with the support of adidas/Reebok, DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation and Hospital for Special Surgery.

We will study the models of the winners and those of the finalists in eight different school types, from urban large-population public high schools to rural small public schools to charter schools (read more about the contest and apply here). We will identify the innovations, partnerships, and budget models that enable such success, then push out our findings in a series of reports that can inspire adoption by superintendents, principals, athletic directors, coaches, physical education teachers, and other stakeholders. The project also will identify cross-cutting strategies that can be used by schools of all types.

We hope the project lays the groundwork to build and scale models that meet the needs of youth and society in the 21st century while offering ideas for administrators to navigate the near-term challenges.

Since the inception in 2013, Project Play has been focused on the base of our sport system, the community programs that engage, and often quickly lose, children ages 12 and under. Getting and keeping them moving early unleashes a virtuous cycle—they go on to college more often, stay active into adulthood more often, make higher incomes in the workplace, enjoy lower health care costs, and are twice as likely to have active children. As a society, we must make quality, regular sport activity accessible to every child, regardless of zip code or ability.

At the same time, we recognize that the landscape of youth sports has been transformed over the past generation by the structural features of the two institutions Ridpath explores in his book—schools and colleges.

NCAA member institutions today offer $3.3 billion in athletic aid, up from $250 million in the early 1990s. They also offer preferential admission to recruited athletes. Scholarship aid remains hard to come by, rarely a full ride, and in sports such as tennis and soccer more of the spots for recruited athletes go to international athletes. Still, that’s a lot of chum tossed into the sea of youth and school sports. It’s just enough to induce a feeding frenzy among parents, who invest at ever-earlier ages for kids, in private trainers, traveling club teams, and $300 cleats or bats.
If they can.

They seek a return on investment, even if it’s just playing time for their kid on the high school team. Not an easy thing to come by today. At large, public high schools, 80 kids might try out for the varsity basketball team. Thirteen might make the team, with eight or nine seeing real minutes in games. It’s hardly a recipe for broad-based provision of the health and other benefits that sports participation can provide. And, intramurals are largely a thing of the past, as is regular P.E. past middle school.

In places, school-based sports work beautifully. Go to just about any prep school. They usually create as many teams in a sport as there are kids in the school who want to play that sport—an A, B, C, and D team if necessary. They allow the supply of sport opportunities to meet the demand. And they ask that every student participate in that economy, by playing at least one sport. Often, sports are not extra-curricular but co-curricular, in recognition of the educational value they can provide.

Write me if you think that’s an awful model, one that leaves U.S. students less prepared to compete in a global economy. Guessing here that my inbox isn’t about to explode.

So, to us, the question becomes: Can that model be adapted to high schools with larger student bodies, smaller budgets, and/or, as is often the case with charter schools, a lack of on-site sport facilities? If so, how? This is where the conversation gets very interesting – and promising if we allow it. Given schools’ mandate to serve all students, can they work more effectively with local clubs to identify participation opportunities? Can they allow them to use campus facilities more readily if clubs embrace policies and practices that are inclusive and model best practices? Can the role of the athletic director or P.E. teacher be reimagined, from less of a provider of sport opportunities to more of a connector to community programs?

We invite all school innovators to share their breakthrough ideas, just as many have done with our middle school sports contest and our Healthy Sport Index national search for exemplary high school teams. Help us get this right, so communities everywhere can up their game.

Tom Farrey is executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. He can be reached at Learn more about Project Play at

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