In many towns in rural America, the Friday night lights of local football fields shine over empty fields, due to a significant and growing decline in sports participation. To put it into perspective, in the year 1983, 355 Nebraska high schools had football programs. Fast forward to 2013, and only 282 programs remained. The problem is exacerbated every year, as participation numbers continue to decline. Socioeconomic concerns, fear of injury, and a lack of available, qualified, and willing coaches seem to be sources of the problem.
This is concerning for a number of reasons, as school athletics have a number of significant benefits to students. For one, regular physical activity has been scientifically proven to lower the likelihood of developing childhood obesity. When you consider that this epidemic affects an estimated 13 million children, any activity that helps curb the problem is necessary. In addition, childhood sports also provide students with a supportive social network, scholarship opportunities to help further their education, and an interest in sports that can lead to sports-related careers in the future.
Increasing Cost of School Athletic Programs
Playing a sport requires money for travel, equipment, and participation fees. Though some sports cost more than others, they all require something from their participants. Even in programs with fee waivers, free equipment, and limited travel fees, participation can also cost students in rural areas in terms of missed wages due to time spent playing sports instead of working or helping their family. Furthermore, the costs of school athletics increase every year. While many parents recognize the benefits of participating in school sports, some are simply unable to afford it.
Finances have a lot to do with sport participation in rural America. The middle class has seen a minimal rise in income as wages drop and unemployment rises. As a result, families not only lack the income needed to fund sports participation, but they may also require their kids to work or to provide additional household funds instead of participating in sports programs..
Not Enough Students to Participate
As more children work or spend time helping family, fewer kids are available to participate in sports. Not only that, but families are having fewer children in general. While rural communities used to have many children to help with farming, many are now choosing to have fewer kids.
The decline in participation in rural sports can also be attributed to moving trends in the United States. Many families are choosing to leave more rural and suburban areas in favor of larger cities where wages are higher.
With athletics becoming more expensive and rural populations decreasing, it’s difficult to find enough kids to make many sports worth funding. In some rural areas, there are simply not enough players for sports programs to continue.
One rural football program in Oregon has just 12 players in its football program, nine of whom will graduate in two years. The next three freshman classes, students now in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, contain a total of just 13 boys. With these low numbers, schools cannot hope to sustain their sports programs.
Lack of Qualified Coaches in Rural Areas
For many of the same reasons that there are limited players, there are also limited coaches. Adults may not be able to afford to volunteer as a coach, and many professional coaches or assistants are moving to populated areas for a salary boost. Once kids leave their rural hometowns to go to school, they may not come back, making the numbers of available coaches go down with rural populations. Those who do coach often lack the sufficient training it takes to effectively coach youth sports.
This is due in part to what is known as brain drain. In essence, many talented professionals choose to move to more urban environments, leaving employment gaps in rural areas that desperately need passionate and qualified coaches, assistants, and volunteers.
Fear of Injury
Many popular rural sports tend to be physical sports that make participants more prone to serious injury. Sports like football, hockey, and lacrosse are all expensive. While high-impact physical sports sometimes shower students with glory, they also expose them to potential trauma and medical expenses. Though the studies about concussions related to contact sports have led to better safety equipment and stricter rules regarding physical contact, many parents are still worried about things like chronic traumatic encephalopathy related to repeated concussions and other physical injuries related to sports. Without education about proper form from coaches and other professionals, their fears aren’t unfounded.
The decline in participation is not specific to rural America, though many of these problems causing lower participation are specific to rural cities. According to Dr. Chris Feudtner of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the media attention on concussions and brain injuries among football players is associated with the decline in student participation.
What Can Be Done to Curb the Problem?
In order to improve the numbers of kids interested in sports in rural areas of the U.S., there needs to be a greater focus on affordability, safety, and access. By focusing on sports that are more affordable or gaining additional funding for expensive sports, more students may be able to play. For instance, track sports tend to be more affordable and safer in terms of physical contact than most contact sports.
Offering competitive wages or volunteer perks may interest more parents or coaches looking to get involved. Of course, acquiring the necessary funding can be a challenge for schools in rural areas, so unless we see changes at a local level, this will be a difficult task. Nevertheless, there are many social and emotional benefits associated with childhood sports, so curbing the problem is important for many students who can benefit.
There’s been a long relationship between education and sports. The two in conjunction help children learn, socialize, stay healthy, and enjoy their education. In rural America, many communities tend to be more passionate about local sports than national sports. Many states without a national team, and without a college team nearby, rally around high school sports and the students who play them. Unfortunately, participation is becoming a problem for a variety of reasons. For the sake of students in rural communities, and their local sports culture, hopefully communities can rally together to curb the problem.
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