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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

League’s demise harkens to old problems

When I read Gazette reporter Mark McGuire’s article about the demise of Schenectady’s youth softball program, I checked the calendar to make sure I hadn’t hopped in a time machine and traveled back 25 years.

In my mind, the only plausible explanation for the disappearance of the city’s softball program was that it was really 1989.

That’s the year I joined a boys’ soccer team because my small New Hampshire town failed to field a girls’ squad and played on a basketball team with just six girls. At the time, this was just the way it was — girls generally weren’t as interested in sports as boys, and getting them to participate could be a challenging. But I’d always assumed that things had changed since I was in middle school.

And maybe they have, but the data on youth sports contains some surprises. Given our society’s emphasis on sports, I’d always assumed that youth sports participation was on the upswing, but the numbers suggest that this isn’t the case.

In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that participation in the most popular team sports in the U.S. — basketball, soccer, baseball and football — fell among boys and girls ages 6 to 17 by roughly 4 percent between 2008 and 2012. Drops in participation varied from sport to sport and age to age; while high school baseball participation actually rose 0.3 percent, Little League baseball reported that participation in its baseball and softball leagues had dropped 6.8 percent. For players ages 6 to 14, football participation dropped 6.8 percent.

Whole new ballgame

Why fewer children and teenagers are playing sports isn’t clear. One possibility might be the increasing competitiveness of sports and the amount of time they consume.

When I was in third grade, participating in the town’s soccer program consisted of going to a field for a few hours on Saturday morning and kicking a ball. Today, kids that age often practice every day and play on travel teams.

There’s also more of an emphasis on winning and developing elite athletes, even in younger grades. For some kids, the seriousness and intensity of the schedule might simply be too much. Experts say that kids are most likely to quit sports because they aren’t having fun.

But you can only quit sports if you already had a team and a league to play in.

According to ESPN, boys and girls in the suburbs participate in sports at nearly equal rates — in high school, 69 percent of girls are involved in at least one sport, compared to 71 percent of boys. But in urban areas, there’s a noticeable gender gap, with 59 percent of girls involved in at least one sport, as opposed to 68 percent of boys.

The main reason for the disparity between girls’ and boys’ participation rates? A lack of access. Girls simply have fewer opportunities to play sports. And the problem is exacerbated if they live in a less affluent community.

A little help

These trends are playing themselves out in Schenectady. The loss of the softball program stems from the merger of the city’s various Little Leagues — the person running softball quit when the leagues merged and no one volunteered to replace her. That is troubling — you’d think that in a city with 66,000 residents, at least one person would be willing to oversee a youth softball program.

And that the softball program would be bigger. In 2013, the league fielded just one 12-and-under team and one 10-and-under team.

“We were down to a program last year that was barely able to sustain itself,” said Ryan Pezzano, co-president of Schenectady Little League.

He suggested that parents were to blame.

“The parental commitment is low in the city,” he said. “It has to start with the parents.”

One might ask why any of this matters, why we should care if girls play sports.

Well, sports are good for kids. Not all kids — not everyone is cut out for the team sports experience — but many kids are, and sports keep them active, occupied and in shape. They also build character, and they’re fun.

It wasn’t easy playing on a soccer team filled with boys who didn’t want to pass to me, but I’m sure it helped make me the person I am today.

That said, it’s not 1989 anymore. It shouldn’t be impossible to field a girls’ softball team.

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