Imagine if every child had a chance to play sports. To know the camaraderie of a team, the feeling of a game-winning shot, or the perseverance to shave seconds off a personal best. To experience all of the benefits – physical, social, emotional, cognitive, individual – available to human beings who simply move their bodies on a regular basis. Now imagine the benefits to communities everywhere, given research showing that adolescents who play sports are eight times more likely to be active as young adults than adolescents who do not play sports. Imagine cities that are healthier, even greener with more park space and trails.
How do we get there?
This is the question that informs The Aspen Institute's Project Play, a once-in-a generation opportunity to reimagine sports in America with health and inclusion as core values. Launched in 2013 by the Sports & Society Program, the initiative convenes thought leaders from the realms of sports, medicine, media, business innovation, government and philanthropy at roundtables, televised town halls and other events where dialogue is advanced and breakthrough strategies are identified, shaped and scaled.
The first stage of Project Play focuses on access to quality sport opportunities for children ages 12 and under. In January 2015, we released "Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game," a 48-page report that offers a new model for youth sports in America, with eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children. Supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other Project Play partners including Nike, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the President's Council on Fitness Sports & Nutrition, the playbook aggregates the best ideas to emerge in 10 roundtables, an ESPN Town Hall that placed access on the national agenda, and a series of panels hosted at the annual gatherings of national organizations.
The need for a new vision and platform is great. Only 40 percent in kids between the ages 6-12 regularly played team sports in 2013, down from 44.5 percent in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The deficits continue through the middle school years. In schools serving low-income youth, only 1 in 4 students play sports. In other areas, school and club-based sports have grown, but so, too, have concerns about concussions, burnout and dubious motivational techniques used by untrained volunteers. Parents, coaches and leaders want solutions to get and keep kids active through sports, but do not know what those are or where to turn.
Project Play addresses that gap, convening leaders and identifying solutions. On Feb. 25, 2015 at the Newseum in Washington D.C., we hosted the 2015 Project Play Summit, where 350 leaders explored and began to take action on the report. High-level representatives from all eight of the key sectors attended the event, the largest one-day gathering ever organized by an Aspen Institute policy program. In his keynote, new U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy established, in a first for his office, the role of youth sports in addressing the needs of public health, while lauding the report as a model for cross-sector collaboration. "You have built a very powerful roadmap," he said. "The challenge now is to take this roadmap literally on the road and impact communities in terms of the engagement of kids and (improving health) outcomes."
The report immediately became one of the most-read reports produced by any Aspen Institute program.
- 20+ organizations have initiated new, specific, meaningful commitments to action as recognized through our "See Who's Playing" process
- ESPN has launched a new corporate citizenship strategy with Access to Sport as a key pillar
- Major League Baseball and other professional leagues have launched symbiotic initiatives
- The U.S. Olympic Committee has advanced efforts to implement the American Development Model, a framework to anchor our sport system in the principles of developmentally appropriate play
- The National Physical Activity Plan is now carving out a distinct section for sports in its revised recommendations (due 2016)
- Community recreation groups have committed to revising their programs, informed by our strategies
- City-wide coalitions of youth-serving organizations in New Orleans and Houston have begun to use to the report to adjust their programs
- Major media outlets (NPR, Washington Post, BloombergBusiness, CBS This Morning, SportsBusiness Journal, others) have raised awareness of the challenges in youth sports, noting our work
- Wall Street experts have begun to conceptualize a tool to innovate around local facilities finance, guided by the insights provided at a Project Play roundtable
- A team of student coders won the SAP Innojam in Palo Alto, Calif., with a mobile app to connect kids with local programs, one of the 40+ activation ideas encouraged in the Project Play report
- 42+ national sport governing bodies, professional leagues and other influential bodies "endorsed" multi-sport play in response to the trend toward early sport specialization
In June, the Aspen Institute also offered additional guidance to stakeholders on the central idea in the Project Play report – "physical literacy." The white paper, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, defines the term as the ability, confidence and desire to be active for life and provides critical support for the connection between the development of motor skills and habits of physical activity. We also released the first global environmental scan at physical literacy efforts around the world.
As an independent, honest broker of ideas, Project Play has become a catalyst for scalable, systems-level change. Its tools are its institutional knowledge, network, and ability to convene leaders in pursuit of solutions consistent with the strategies and values of its reports. The initiative is, as American College of Sports Medicine CEO Jim Whitehead has observed, "the aggregator, the unifier, 'the commons' for all honorable programs and efforts that serve children through sports."
In an Aspen Institute survey, organizations that say Project Play has been useful in helping shape their work include the NBA, USA Hockey, MLB, Major League Soccer, USOC, Nike, ESPN, NCAA, NBC Sports, USA Football, US Tennis Association, USA Baseball, USA Field Hockey, the LA84 Foundation, the Partnership for a Healthier America, SafeKids Worldwide, and the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.
Kevin Martinez, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship at ESPN elaborated on the role that Project Play has had in helping to drive the collaborative dialogue, saying "ESPN is committed to helping reverse the decline of participation in youth sports, and Project Play's insightful research has been invaluable as we continue to refine and implement our strategy—providing access to sports for all, no matter someone's socioeconomic status or ability. We also appreciate the collaboration with key industry stakeholders because when we work together as one industry, one voice, the impact that we can make is transformative."
As Project Play moves forward, it will continue to convene leaders annually to take measure of progress in growing access to a quality sports activity (the next Project Play Summit is May 17, details TBD). It will foster collective impact through continuous communication about gaps and opportunities, host dialogues where new ideas can be explored, and help stakeholders understand how individual and shared actions can build on the Project Play report. Sub-initiatives will also be developed, among them collective action coalitions to help communities activate on the strategies at the local level.
The mission of the Sports & Society Program is to convene leaders, foster dialogue, and inspire solutions that help sport serve the public interest, with a focus on the development of healthy children and communities. The program provides a venue for thought leadership where knowledge can be deepened and breakthrough strategies explored on a range of issues. See a partial list of leaders who have participated in our events here.
The program is led by executive director Tom Farrey, author of "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children" (2008, ESPN Books/Hyperion) and a veteran journalist. Farrey's work over the years has explored the connections between sports and society - in education, globalization, technology, race, poverty and ethics, among other areas. His cross-platform work with ESPN's Outside the Lines has won many national awards, including two Emmys for Outstanding Sports Journalism, an Edward R. Murrow Award, and in 2014, ESPN's first-ever Alfred I. duPont/Columbia University Award, one of the highest honors in journalism. He created the vision for the Sports & Society program in 2011 and Project Play in 2013. He can be followed on Twitter at @TomFarrey.
Program associate Risa Isard joined the Sports & Society Program in June 2014 and is co-author of the physical literacy report. Prior to her role at the Institute, she served as the community relations coordinator for the Fresno Grizzlies, then the Triple-A Affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. Isard graduated cum laude from Duke University with a specialized degree in "Social Change at the Intersection of Culture, Gender, and Sports." She also received honors for her thesis titled "Towards a Level Playing Field: The Faces and Forces Behind Title IX and Women's Educational Equality, 1969-1975." A long-time advocate of using sports as a platform for social change, Risa has been published on espnW and Generation W. She can be followed at @RisaLovesSports.
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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C., with facilities in Aspen, Colo., New York City, and on the Wye River in eastern Maryland. Led by CEO Walter Isaacson, its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.