Tyrone Riley is worried. He is a basketball coach and a father, and he is witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic on youth sports in America.
He describes it as a tragedy.
Riley is the coach of the boys’ varsity team at Jordan High School in Watts, one of the hardest parts of South Los Angeles. He graduated from Jordan, grew up in one of the housing projects nearby, and went on to succeed in college basketball and then in European pro leagues.
He knows to his core the power that sports can have in changing lives and bringing communities together.
He also knows the grim reality of what has unfolded since the coronavirus spread to the United States in March.
Far from the glamour of professional and college games that appear in abundance on our screens, sports are barely limping along at the community level where children learn to love games and families come together to sit in stands and form lasting bonds.
Since March, youth participation in sports has dropped off a cliff.
In communities like Watts, sports barely exist at all.
“Everything is closed down,” Riley told me this week. Recreation centers. Gymnasiums. Many outdoor basketball courts are surrounded by fences and locked gates.
Riley has two sons, ages 14 and 10. They’re budding basketball players. But all they can do right now is train when they can, where they can. Usually, that’s in the early morning at one of the outdoor courts, far from anyone else.
“I’m a coach, but the time my boys spend playing is down probably 80 percent,” he said. “I spend a lot of time wondering how we’re going to get out of this.”
Riley is not alone.
Tom Farrey is worried. He directs the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. His focus has long been on improving the world by increasing access to sports for young people.
And right now, “this is a moment of historic crisis,” Farrey said.
Last week, the Aspen Institute released the worrying results of a nationwide survey on how youth sports had been impacted for families coping with the pandemic. The study shows that American children ranging in age from 6 to 18 are playing far less now than before the health crisis. Over all, there has been a nearly 50 percent drop.
Farrey said that an already ample opportunity gap has widened. Compared with their counterparts in communities like Watts, middle-class and wealthy families are far more likely to have found ways to work around coronavirus restrictions and keep their children playing.
Then there are those who have found other things to do. The study showed that nearly 30 percent of youth who were playing sports before the pandemic were not likely to go back without a major intervention. They’ve lost interest.
Likely, some have lost momentum. Others have probably gotten so used to spending time on screens and video games that getting out on a field and running around seems less appealing.
“A lot of kids have checked out of sports,” Farrey said.
It will be a battle to get them back.
Aaron Teklu is worried. He is a 17-year-old point guard who is captain of the varsity team at the Northwest School in downtown Seattle.
Teklu, a teenager whose family immigrated from Ethiopia when he was a toddler, said he struggled with not having his father in his life. Basketball is his therapy, but he can get it only in slim drips right now.
Three days a week, he meets a few teammates at a gym, and they run through individual drills.
“It’s not enough,” he told me, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s not nearly enough. Basketball has always been my way to step away from reality. It has always helped me deal with my emotions and what is going on in my life.”
No real games. No real practices. Only faint hopes for a senior season and one last chance to impress a college coach.
“All of this,” he said, “has taken a toll.”
Rich Luker is worried.
He is the founder of Luker on Trends, which has long provided data and advice about building loyal fans to pro leagues such as the N.F.L. and Major League Baseball. He is also a social psychologist who has made a career out of studying the bond between sports involvement at an early age and a lifetime passion for it.
To Luker, the pandemic-fueled decline in youth participation is just one piece of a larger puzzle.
Few people are attending games of any kind. The fear of large crowds is wise, and it’s keeping most of us away from sitting in stands or standing on sidelines or even gathering for television watch parties.
But we need to be aware of the cost: Children, families and friends have been cut from fandom’s communal tradition. There are now far fewer chances to form friendships around watching sports together, and less opportunity for our youth to feel the generation-to-generation connections that come from getting together and rooting for a team.
It’s not just professional or college games we’re missing.
Next year, it is likely that teams in dozens of cities and towns across the country will shutter for good.
High school football has returned to some regions, but in many others it remains only a memory. High school wrestling, gymnastics and basketball in indoor gyms this winter or early next year? With another surge in the virus expected, don’t bet on any of that.
“What we’re talking about is a loss of simple community,” Luker said. The ramifications might be felt, he said, for generations. “Just like after the Depression.”
Now I’m worried. Are you?