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While Pro And College Athletes Fight Through A Pandemic, Kids Have A Tougher Path

The Lowell High School girls soccer team fist bumps before a game this month in Massachusetts. The coronavirus pandemic has curtailed youth athletics leaving some students scrambling for opportunities.
Stan Grossfeld
Boston Globe via Getty Images
The Lowell High School girls soccer team fist bumps before a game this month in Massachusetts. The coronavirus pandemic has curtailed youth athletics leaving some students scrambling for opportunities.

Professional and college sports are playing through the pandemic, although it's taken a toll.

Many athletes and prominent coaches have contracted the virus; games have been postponed.

Still, the sports press on, bolstered by regular testing, and spurred by fan interest and the quest for money.

It's been much harder for youth sports.

Many kids have lost the chance to compete, or to simply play, with schools and community programs shut down, and nervous parents unwilling to let their children interact with peers.

A recent youth sports study says the impact could be lasting.

Hope....and black ops

Standing six-feet three-inches, high school junior Antonio Jimenez can dunk a basketball on the hoop cemented into his driveway in Portland, Ore.

"On a good day," Jimenez smiled, moments before an attempt rattled out of the hoop.

A smooth, left handed jump shot is the more reliable part of his game. And the 16-year-old hopes his skills help earn him some scholarship money.

"I definitely want to get some if not all of my college paid for," Jimenez said. "Anything helps, you know, when it comes to college because [it's] really expensive. And that's the main goal."

It's a murky goal right now, as it is for many aspiring high school athletes. This season was key for Jimenez – developing his skills, hopefully getting noticed by colleges.

"You can see your window closing, you know?" Jimenez said. "And with this season being uncertain, it's scary, you know? You might not get a chance to get that exposure [because of] COVID."

With no in-person classes, no organized basketball practices and his sport considered high risk for virus transmission, Jimenez has had to scramble.

"There's been a lot of, kind of like Black Ops stuff going on with the COVID," said Jimenez's father, Antonio Garcia. "A lot of kids are assembling, some assembling in gyms. They're practicing social distancing the best they can, but they're not really willing to sacrifice this time, for the sake of the virus. A lot of people are still grinding pretty hard."

Black Ops?

"Yeah," Garcia laughed. "We're hiding, you know, kind of underground hoop training. Everybody doing what they can."

Jimenez has trained, with a few others, at public parks around the Portland area, or in coaches' backyards. He's kept his jump shot tuned in the driveway. But cold, rainy weather is coming, and with his high school team on hold, Jimenez has to figure out how to keep up. And his dad, a 33-year-old machinist working two jobs, has to calculate getting his oldest child into an indoor training facility that might cost $200 - $300.

"That's a car payment, you know what I mean?" Garcia said. "So that's something that you don't take lightly, and you know with [having] other children. But in this situation, with his senior year [of high school] on the horizon, we've got to look at making some investments. In order to keep the dream alive.

"You know with the pandemic, these kids are losing a little bit of their identity and we've got to make sure we preserve that in some way and give them some kind of hope."

Loss of community

About three hours north of Portland, in Seattle, sports for high school sophomore Ruby Lee, are less means to an end, and more a way of life.

"I started dancing when I was two," Lee said.

And when she was around ten years old, she picked up Ultimate Frisbee. The sport is a big deal in Seattle's south end, where Lee lives and plays on a high school team. But now, with no organized team play, the 15-year-old feels the void.

"All around there's less of a community, less of a, like, sense of team," Lee said. "That's been like the biggest loss for me, at least."

Her ballet, jazz and modern dance have been confined to zoom classes. Lee says it's been too much, considering her school classes also are online. As a result, her motivation flagged.

"It can be pretty easy to just, like, forget about moving and stuff."

She hasn't completely forgotten.

Lee says she takes long walks with her family and plays frisbee in the park with her younger sister. She says post-pandemic, she'll dance and play high school frisbee again. Not as much as before, but at least she'll come back.

Others, might not.

A toll on youth sports, and imagining a better future

A months-long, national survey of youth sports during the pandemic, revealed three kids in ten, won't come back to sports.

"And that's kind of, to me, scary," said Utah State University associate professor Travis Dorsch. He was the lead researcher for the study commissioned by the Aspen Institute Project Play Initiative.

"What we're seeing, through this pandemic," Dorsch said, "either because they're finding other interests, or because they're realizing sport wasn't a huge part of what [they] wanted to do in the beginning, children are telling us, or their parents are telling us [in the survey], they don't want to come back to youth sports. At least the way it was."

Dorsch says another reason kids are pulling away – their families, hit hard by the pandemic, can't afford sports anymore. Indeed, the outbreak has exacerbated a long standing gap between who can pay and who can't. Advocates say with the pandemic largely putting a pause on youth sports, the time is ripe for re-imagining them to make them more affordable and accessible.

"One of the things [the Aspen Institute] has wanted to do," Dorsch said, "is create more close to home opportunities to play. In most cases, we don't need to be driving 50, 100 or 500 miles, or getting on an airplane, to go play children in the sport we love. So the idea is [to] create the resources necessary to allow every municipality, every community, to have a solid infrastructure of youth sport offerings. Such that, any kid that wants to participate, at any age, can play a sport."

It's an important goal, but Dorsch says there's a more immediate situation to confront. The survey questioned parents nationwide in June and September. While it showed kids' participation increased from summer to fall, it also revealed the pandemic has taken a toll.

"When you take a step back and look at [the survey results] through a public health lens," Dorsch said, "we now have a generation of young people who, for half of a year...and it's going to be longer...haven't been getting the necessary opportunity to move their body."

It appears the recovery from that will be jumbled.

Right now a patchwork of organized sports opportunities is emerging state to state. Some sports are opening up, even prompting high schoolers to transfer across state lines so they can play.

On the other hand, you have situations like the one announced last week. Seven northeastern states agreed to suspend interstate youth hockey competition at least through the end of the year, reportedly because the events were tied to coronavirus outbreaks.

Like much with the pandemic, there'll be confusion in youth sports....before clarity.

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Tom Goldman
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on
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