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Price of participation

As more schools levy fees,will minorities drop out?

At the depths of the Great Recession, two troubling patterns emerged that now, from an economic standpoint, seem inevitable when credit is scarce and budgets tighten: the push toward “pay-to-play” fees at the high school level and lowering participation rates in sports by children and teens.

According to the New York-based youth sports research foundation Up2Us, 40 percent of high schools nationwide are charging fees to participate in interscholastic sports.

Indiana isn't immune. Four years ago, Whitko implemented what it refers to as a “pay to participate” program, whereby athletes are charged a one-time fee: $80 for high school, $50 for middle school and $30 for elementary school.

“The participation fee in no way guarantees contest playing time for an athlete,” the district states in its student handbook.

Although not specific to athletics, Northwest Allen County Schools levies a transportation fee for extracurricular activities that amounts to $30 per activity at Carroll High School and $10 per activity at the middle school level.

The district handbook clearly states why: “As a result of state budget changes, alterations in tax law and rising fuel costs, transportation-fees will be assessed for participation in co-extra-curricular activities that require transportation.”

Pay-for-play is something that has weighed on the mind of Bobby Cox, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. While the association does not keep statistics on pay-to-play, he acknowledges that the trend line toward participation fees will continue to move upward.

“The reality is that it's more and more expensive to play sports,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “The funding formulas changed, and school corporations needed to be more creative.”

“Admissions charges, booster club monies, sponsorships, concession sales – for many, it doesn't meet the budget,” he added.

As to the future, Cox is loath to speculate because the nature of politics is fluid and the funding formula is in flux. If the current funding formula remains in place, districts will have to become even more creative in funding, including finding more corporate sponsors or levying fees.

Mount Vernon, Indiana, student athletes were aided in fees by a generous donation from a local car dealer. The donation relieves the fees through the 2017 school year.

As dire as the future could be, at least Hoosiers will not face what Arizona's state athletic association did: a pay-for-play program for schools to participate in a few postseason tournaments, including wrestling and cheerline.

Fort Wayne Community Schools has not assessed fees for athletics, nor does it plan to, said Krista Stockman, the district's spokesperson. In a district where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost meals – an indicator of a district's poverty level – such a plan would devastate low-income families.

Nationally, the rise in pay-to-play programs is already having an effect on low-income students, particularly minorities, as shown in a 2012 poll conducted by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan. Of parents surveyed, 43 percent report that their child participates in schools sports, and 61 percent say the school charged a fee, with the average being $93. Six percent reported receiving a waiver. However, when adding in additional fees and costs, the average cost for sports participation was $381.

While pay-to-play plans have hit districts across the class line, the effect has a disproportionate effect on households earning less than $60,000 a year.

“Overall, 12 percent of parents report that the cost of school sports has caused a decrease in participation for at least one of their children,” the report states. “However, nearly 1 in 5 parents in lower-income households report a decrease in their child's sports participation – a much bigger decrease than their higher-income peers.”

Why this is important will become evident, and it follows the second trend that developed during the recession and reported by the Wall Street Journal in January: the combined participation in the four most popular U.S. team sports – basketball, soccer, baseball and football – fell among boys and girls aged 6 through 17 by roughly 4 percent from 2008 to 2012.

Since the 2007-08 school year, Indiana has ranked 18th among the 51 associations reporting in the National Federation of State High School Associations' annual participation survey. However, a closer look at the numbers shows that the Hoosier state experienced declines in participation, particularly among boys.

In 2007-08, nearly 159,000 students participated in athletics. In 2012-13, the latest data marked the total number at 152,577, an increase of fewer than a thousand students from the year before. The biggest drop in rates for boys and girls occurred at the height of the recession.

IHSAA says the trend should continue to rise.

Football took a tumble, with the NFHS data showing a 6.5 percent decline in participation between the 2008 and 2012 seasons.

Boys and girls basketball participation have gone down, but boys and girls soccer have seen increases in the number of schools fielding teams and participation rates.

“The data don't tell us exactly why,” said Bill Stanczykiewicz, president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute, who, speaking specifically to the national trend, said that experts view the Great Recession as one cause for the downturn.

“Families, quite candidly, do not have the money for registration fees and equipment,” he added. While Stanczykiewicz did not devalue other extracurricular activities such as the arts and sciences, he was quick to point out the one benefit sports have over other school programs.

“The No. 1 benefit is activity,” Stanczykiewicz said.

And there's the rub, when reviewing the C.S. Mott survey and seeing the 20 percent decline of participation among minorities. In a country with a painfully high obesity and diabetes rate among youth and adults – with an eye on low-income and minority incomes – the benefits of physical activity in athletics are obvious. Children who are obese at age eight are 10 times more likely to be obese adults.

In a 2002 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, “students who play sports are eight times more likely to be active later in life, and physical fitness is a strong predicator of cardiovascular health,” according to Up2Us.

With cardiovascular disease at high levels among black males, such a statistic, to say the least, casts a worrisome eye toward the health of future generations when viewed with the C.S. Mott survey.

Ultimately, though, the price of athletics begs the question of whether or not high schools ought to field teams. In her Atlantic essay “The Case Against High-School Sports,” Amanda Ripley, a fellow at the New America Foundation, posited that the emphasis on sports is old-fashioned and dangerous. The time and money spent could go to enriching the academic experience.

“But at this moment in history, now that more than 20 countries are pulling off better high-school-graduation rates than we are, with mostly nominal athletic offerings, using sports to tempt kids into getting an education feels dangerously old-fashioned,” she wrote last fall. “America has not found a way to dramatically improve its children's academic performance over the past 50 years, but other countries have – and they are starting to reap the economic benefits.”

The premise is understandable, but sports, particularly high schools sports, have an abstract concept that has to do with quality of life for the student and the community. Numerous studies detail how athletics in all socioeconomic and racial communities raises the confidence of students, particularly female athletes. One recent study showed that 90 percent of female executives working at Fortune 500 companies played one or more sports in high school.

Privatizing sport – club teams that run in the thousands of dollars if one is chosen – is a frightening proposition, where athletics would be the domain of the few rather than the activity of the many. Consider sports such as tennis and golf, where the high school team is the point of entry for players who view the sport as a lifetime love.

As old-fashioned as it sounded, Cox posed a scenario on the difference between the travel team and the high school.

“When you win at the big game on Friday night, there's nothing like the cheers and adulation when you walk through the halls on Monday,” he said. “You can't replace that. There is a place for elite teams; those folks do a great job. But less than 5 percent of our athletes play in college. What about the rest of the students?

“If we don't preserve the opportunity (for all students), then shame on us!”