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New foundation takes aim at the high cost of youth sports

Darryl Hill, Kids Play USA founder and chairman
Darryl Hill, Kids Play USA founder and chairman - Steve Ruark
While attending a girls’ soccer tournament in Washington, D.C., Darryl Hill noticed that out of the 150 athletes, none of them were black. Out of curiosity, Hill decided to ask one of the managers about the cost of playing the sport.

Hill, the first black athlete to earn a scholarship to play football at the University of Maryland in 1963, discovered that it costs $175 a month to participate. 

“That’s just to be on the team. It has nothing to do with the shoes, the bags, the uniforms, the travel expenses, etc.,” Hill says. All of those expenses tallied up to $5,000 a year.

“So I said, OK I get it. That’s purely economic discrimination. And it’s got to stop.”

So in October, Hill founded the Kids Play USA Foundation in Laurel with the mission of making sports more affordable for families with incomes of less than $60,000.

Many families on already thin budgets are spending thousands of dollars a year so their kids could play baseball, basketball and other sports. It’s a problem many families face, especially as children try new sports each year. The result, says Hill, is that youth sports is no longer a meritocracy determined by competition and skill, but by families' budgets.

Hill hopes to make it possible for lower-income kids to play sports by raising public awareness, working with teams, leagues and equipment manufacturers to bring down costs, and finding ways to provide financial aide to families in need with fundraising, donations, and support from local governments. He plans to raise funds with individual and business donations, corporate sponsorships from gear manufacturers and professional leagues, and governmental and foundation grants.

“I grew up in an era when sports were free, and standby sports were de rigeur,” Hill says. “So we came home from school, we went to the baseball diamond, and we played baseball. Or we found an open field and we played football, or we played basketball. And we did it pretty much unsupervised and among ourselves. We chose the teams that we played, but every child got to play, and we played for hours.”
Well-meaning initiatives like first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! and the National Football League’s Play60 aim to make children more active, but they’re only part of the solution, Hill says.

“The 60-minute play-a-day idea, that’s a great idea,” Hill says. “But if your kid can’t afford to pay, he can’t play that 60 minutes."

Kids Play USA found that families with incomes less than $60,000 are four times more likely to pull their children out of sports because of the costs. According to their research, one-third of American kids will be overweight or obese by third grade. Female high school athletes are 80 percent less likely to get pregnant. And 81 percent of children who played organized sports growing up are more likely to continue to stay active than those who don’t.

The rewards of being part of a team are invaluable, says William Stokes, a coach for the Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders and the Maryland Twisters youth cheerleading teams.

“This kind of structure first creates accountability,” Stokes says. Kids on a sports team have to be accountable for what they do in practice, on the field and in the classroom because they have to maintain their grades. If they don’t do those things, then their team suffers because they’re pulled from the team.

But Stokes has also seen talented athletes drop out due to high costs. He estimates that the uniforms, competition fees, gym fees and travel expenses can total anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 for one season alone, which is why he sees value in Hill’s venture.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Stokes says. “I think it’s a great incentive for those kids to not only excel in sports but to also excel academically. If they’re given an opportunity to do something that they love, hopefully that would translate into something where they do better in school, they have more focus in other areas, maybe they’re more motivated to become class president, or maybe they take on some type of activity outside the school.”

As the Kids Play USA Foundation works to make sports affordable in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, Hill says his team is making plans to eventually make a national expansion to bring relief to middle-class families like the Mclaughlins of Perry Hall. Mary Mclaughlin says she spends thousands of dollars a year so her two sons, ages 9 and 10, can play football, basketball, soccer and baseball.

While the costs of the sports are so high, the costs of kids not playing sports has an even greater cost, Hill says.

"A kid who doesn’t participate in sports, the idle kid, is a problem waiting to happen.”

Staci Wolfson is a Baltimore-born, NYU-educated writer and editor based in Charm City. In addition to BmoreMedia, you can read her writing on her blog
All photographs by STEVE RUARK
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