No one has to convince Darryl Hill about the value of sports in society. He has been a first-hand witness for a half-century, ever since he enrolled at the University of Maryland and became the first African-American to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Hill had to sit out in 1962 after transferring from the Naval Academy, but he integrated the ACC in 1963 and emerged as the Terrapins' top receiver. He has been honored this year during 50th anniversary celebrations at Maryland and Clemson, and reflected on his accomplishment in various articles.
"Sports put everyone on the same playing field and same level," Hill said in a recent phone interview. "I fought against discrimination in college sports so that young African-Americans and people of color could play sports at the college of their choice."
Now the 69-year-old native Washingtonian has turned his attention to a different type of discrimination in sports, a form of bias that is growing but isn't grasped by many folks. His new battle entails breaking down barriers associated with cost, not color.
"Kids now have to pay to play, and they're getting locked out," Hill said. "Sports are becoming more and more for children of the elite. The children who can afford it play on elite teams and travel teams at the top level. It's not the most deserving athletes; it's the most economically capable athletes."
He realized the depths of the issue earlier this year when a friend in Loudoun County, Va., brought it to his attention. She earned "a fairly decent income and could afford to put her children in sports, but it was a squeeze and a pinch for her as a single mother," he said. "And she noticed how children from lower-income levels weren't able to play or get to and from practices and games. I said, 'Something's wrong with this picture.'"
The conversation led Hill to form Kids Play USA, a nonprofit organization that seeks to remove financial barriers to participation in youth sports. As he's come to find out, the hurdles can be quite sizable.
"There are costs for joining teams, for buying equipment, for arranging private lessons, for travel," sports mom Jodi Furman, of Palm Beach, Fla., told Reuters. "It can really add up; I know families who spend over $10,000 a year on sports for their children. Parents need to go into it with their eyes — and wallets — open."
Mark Hyman, a journalist and George Washington University professor, presents a startling look at the arms race in his new book, "The Most Expensive Game in Town." One example is the story of Fran Dicari, a sports dad in Cincinnati, who in 2010 dropped $8,921 on his children's athletic pursuits.
"I think of it as the global warming of youth sports," Hyman told The New York Times. "There are a lot of forces nudging you toward the more expensive end of the scale. All around, other families are making big investments."
Hill said raising public awareness at the youth level is the first order of business for Kids Play USA. He points to statistics on how beneficial sports participation can be for children, leading to better, healthier outcomes in any number of areas (academically, physically, socially, psychologically, etc). Hill said the decline in opportunities based on finances is "a travesty.
"If we have a wave of children out of sports, we're putting them in harm's way," he said. "Because they're going to be idle, and you know what that means. Sports have been one of the saving graces that kept the community in balance. If you lose that, you're putting society and the community at risk."
He's under no illusion that we'll return to the days when youth pick-up games were the norm and most league play required little to no cost. But the money-making aspect of youth sports is a concern, where leagues, tournaments and personal trainers can become big business.
"A lot of entities are trying to maximize the revenues they take in, and not all of it goes for the benefit of children," Hill said. "The goal is to level the playing field so sports are available to all children. If push comes to shove and we can't get it level, we'll help families that want to play."
The obstacles have changed since Hill arrived at Maryland. But his objective remains the same: Pave a road to sports for children on the outside.
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