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

Nov 16, 2020
Originally published on November 16, 2020 1:41 pm

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.

Antonio Jimenez (L) and his father Antonio Garcia at their home in Portland, Ore. Jimenez, a 16-year-old high school junior, has been trying to develop his basketball skills during the pandemic by training in small groups with other players and shooting several hundred jump shots daily at home.
Tom Goldman / NPR

"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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Professional and college sports continue through the pandemic, though they have taken a toll. Many athletes and coaches have contracted the coronavirus. Games have been postponed. But still, most sports press on. Well, it has been much harder for youth sports. Many kids have lost the chance to compete or even to simply play, with their schools and community programs shut down. One study says the impact could be lasting. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Standing 6 feet, 3 inches, high school junior Antonio Jimenez can dunk a basketball on his driveway hoop - sometimes. A smooth, left-handed jump shot is the more reliable part of his game. Sixteen-year-old Jimenez from Portland, Ore., hopes it earns him some scholarship money.

ANTONIO JIMENEZ: Anything helps, you know, when it comes to college 'cause college is expensive - really expensive. That's the main goal.

GOLDMAN: 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.

JIMENEZ: With this season being uncertain, it's scary, you know? You might not get a chance to get that exposure 'cause COVID.

GOLDMAN: With no in-person classes, no basketball practice and his sport considered high-risk for virus transmission, Jimenez has had to scramble. Here's his dad, Antonio Garcia.

ANTONIO GARCIA: There's been a lot of kind of like black ops stuff going on with COVID. A lot of kids are assembling. 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.

JIMENEZ: Black ops.

GARCIA: Yeah, it's almost like black ops. We're hiding, you know, kind of underground hoop training. You know, everybody's kind of doing what they can.

GOLDMAN: Jimenez has trained with a few others at public parks or in coaches' backyards. 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 machinist, has to calculate getting his oldest child into an indoor training facility at 2- to $300 a month.

GARCIA: That's a car payment, you know what I mean? So that's something that you don't take lightly. But in this situation, with his senior year on the horizon, we got to look at making some investments, you know, in order to keep the dream alive.

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

RUBY LEE: I started dancing when I was 2.

GOLDMAN: At around 10, she picked up Ultimate Frisbee. It's popular in Seattle's South End, where she plays on a high school team. But now, with no organized play, 15-year-old Lee feels the void.

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

GOLDMAN: Her ballet, jazz and modern dance have been confined to Zoom classes. And Lee says it's been too much, considering her school classes are online as well. As a result, her motivation flagged.

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

GOLDMAN: She says post-pandemic, she'll dance and play high school Frisbee again - not as much, but at least she'll resume. Others won't. A months-long national survey of youth sports during the pandemic revealed 3 kids in 10 won't come back to sports.

TRAVIS DORSCH: And that's kind of, to me, what's scary.

GOLDMAN: Utah State University professor Travis Dorsch was the main researcher for the study by the Aspen Institute's Project Play initiative. Dorsch says kids aren't returning because they're finding other things to do, or families can't afford sports anymore. The pandemic has exacerbated a long-standing gap between who can pay and who can't. Advocates say the time is ripe for reimagining youth sports so they're more affordable and accessible. But there's a more immediate problem to confront, Dorsch says. Even though the survey showed participation increased from summer to fall, the pandemic has taken a toll.

DORSCH: We now have a generation of young people who, for half of the year - and it's going to be longer - haven't been getting the necessary opportunities to move their body.

GOLDMAN: Recovering from that will be jumbled. There's a patchwork of organized sports opportunities from 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, seven Northeastern states agreed last week to suspend interstate youth hockey competition through the end of the year. Like much with the pandemic, confusion before clarity.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.