Aspen Institute Releases Youth Sports Report in Central Ohio

March 30, 2021

State of Play Central Ohio shows that financial barriers impact sports participation for Black children more than White children

Contact: Jon Solomon
Editorial Director, Sports & Society Program
The Aspen Institute 

Washington, D.C., March 30, 2021 – A new report released today by the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute shows a divide based upon race and income in youth sports experiences for some children in Central Ohio. State of Play Central Ohio analyzes the state of youth sports in the region and offers recommendations to grow quality access to sports, physical activity and outdoor recreation for all children, regardless of race, gender, income or ability.

Twenty percent of youth surveyed in Central Ohio said they do not play sports more often due to financial costs associated with participation. Costs affected Black youth (28%) more than White youth (18%), and elementary school students (29%) more than those in middle school (19%) and high school (14%). Also, White youth (86%) reported feeling safer than Black youth (71%) in accessing play areas within their neighborhood.

State of Play Central Ohio, guided by an advisory group of local leaders, is the product of a 13-month analysis of the greater Columbus area centered on Franklin County. The report will help organizations develop new strategies and partnerships that will especially be needed during the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The Aspen Institute identified 40 findings and made recommendation based on the unique characteristics of the region through youth and coach surveys; focus group discussions with youth, coaches and parents; and analysis of Central Ohio’s youth sports ecosystem.

The full report is available to read here: Read the executive summary of the report here. Watch a video explaining the report’s purpose and findings here.

The report’s main recommendation is to direct Central Ohio’s collaborative power into a coalition focused on health and inclusion through youth sports. The coalition could inspire systemic changes by focusing organizations throughout the region on five key areas – knowledge sharing and communications, family empowerment, coach development pipeline, equity and inclusion, and quality assurance among funders.

“Central Ohio is well positioned to harness our collective expertise, collaborative spirit, and network of youth-serving organizations to ensure a more equitable sports, recreation and playing experience for all our children,” said Dan A. Sharpe, Vice President for Community Research and Grants Management, The Columbus Foundation. “The findings and recommendations from the Aspen team give us a solid playbook to adapt — and improve upon — the strengths of our community, across all sporting disciplines.”

Among other key findings in Central Ohio:

  • Coaches identified funding and facility space as the most important needs for youth sports teams, with urban communities needing more help than suburban and rural areas. Urban coaches were four times as likely as suburban coaches and twice as likely as rural coaches to identify transportation as a barrier. All coaches listed children with disabilities as the population most in need of more sports opportunities.
  • Mental health pressures on young athletes are a persistent factor in their sport experience. Supporting athletes’ mental health is done informally among coaches and official training is uncommon. Coaches expressed more interest in receiving training in sports skills than around mental health and emotional intelligence – areas that youth and medical experts said are needed now more than ever due to the impact of the pandemic.
  • Relationships with peers are a key motivator for sports participation. The No. 1 reason youth said they play sports is to be with friends. Winning ranked ninth.
  • Youth identified volleyball (girls) and basketball (boys) as sports they most want to try. Football ranked No. 2 for boys, with Black youth twice as likely to have ever played tackle football as White youth. Ohio State University Athletic Director Gene Smith said tackle football should be eliminated for kids until age 13 to reduce the risk of brain injuries. Read Smith’s support of flag football here.
  • Girls were almost twice as likely as boys to identify schoolwork as an obstacle from playing sports more often. More girls than boys fear injury and believe they are not good enough to play. Boys cited the costs of sports as the main reason they don’t play more.

State of Play Central Ohio was made in partnership with The Columbus Foundation, Lindy Infante Foundation, Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, Columbus Youth Foundation, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and the Chris and Lori Holtmann Fund. The advisory group will use the findings to guide next steps on further coordinating Central Ohio’s youth sports landscape, ensuring greater access and equity for youth related to sports and recreation, and removing barriers to youth success.

The report showed disparities in Central Ohio for youth to access sports at all levels, including through schools. While suburban schools offer between 18 and 28 sports, Columbus City Schools, with limited middle school sports and no freshman sports, provides far fewer options for interested students.

“Some sports, such as lacrosse, thrive in the suburbs but are hard to find in the city,” said Stephanie Infante, President of Lindy Infante Foundation. “These statistics make it very apparent that in order to truly level the playing field, more opportunities need to be provided to the youth in these underserved schools.”

State of Play Central Ohio is the Aspen Institute’s 10th community report. The Aspen Institute has produced county reports on Seattle/King County, Washington and Mobile County, Alabama; a state report on Hawai’i; regional reports on Southeast Michigan, Western New York, Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes, and Central Ohio; and local reports on Baltimore, Harlem, New York, and Camden, New Jersey.

“Imagine if every child in Central Ohio, regardless of zip code or ability, had access to a quality sports activity into and through adolescence,” said Tom Farrey, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “Imagine the impact on their health as they move into adulthood, and the vitality of communities across the region. Greater Columbus understands the value of sports as well as place in the country. We hope this report helps to identify opportunities to progress.”

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most important challenges facing the United States and the world. For more information, visit

An initiative of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, Project Play develops, applies and shares knowledge that helps stakeholders build healthy communities through sports. For more information, visit


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