Share your stories on the opportunity/sports gap

ONE OF THE GREATEST JOYS of my life has been watching my son play sports. Over the years, he’s played soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and basketball on organized teams, and football, kickball, whiffle ball, swimming, volleyball, and countless other games with his pals. I’ve been to most of his games, sometimes helping to coach on the sidelines. As he’s gotten older and become more serious about sports, I’ve driven him all over the region to play.

I’ve never really thought about sports in a public policy sense until the past month or so, when a couple of stories for this issue began to take shape. Freelance writer Hari Patel began analyzing the sports participation numbers assembled by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and discovered that the sports scene that I’ve taken for granted in my community is not the same everywhere.

The data indicate that sports participation in high schools across the state is tied fairly closely to the income level of the communities in which the schools are located. Youth in higher-income communities play a lot of sports, while kids in lower-income communities are far less likely to participate in school athletics at all.

Educators in some of the lower-income communities are deeply troubled by what might be called the sports gap. They say sports, as well as other extracurricular activities such as band, speech, and theater, teach students valuable life skills, including strong work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and civic engagement.

Jeff Riley, the state receiver in charge of the Lawrence Public Schools, says he views sports as an integral part of his effort to improve the city’s school system. “Fundamentally, this is about fairness,” he says. “We talk about the achievement gap. What about the opportunity gap? Our kids have to have the same access to the American Dream as suburban kids do.”

Riley could have been reading straight out of a book titled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, written by Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam. Putnam says one of the most important issues facing the country is the disparate opportunities of American children based on their parents’ background. Those opportunities range from growing up in two-parent households to engaging in extracurricular activities such as sports and drama.

As Putnam, the subject of this issue’s Conversation, tells my colleague Michael Jonas, “When it comes to opportunity for kids today, the gap has just gotten way out of hand, and it’s growing so fast that if we don’t do something it’s going to get worse. It’s a little bit like global warming in the sense that if you don’t start now it’s going to get worse and worse and it’s going to be harder and harder to fix.”

With Putnam’s comment in mind, I’d like to invite you to join a conversation with CommonWealth about this opportunity gap. The conversation can take many forms. We may host an event or we can host a forum of ideas on the CommonWealth website. I’m open to anything, but let’s start by getting on the same page, reading the stories in this issue and locating and sharing other resources.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Then share your thoughts. Do you think an opportunity gap exists? If so, how should it be addressed? Regarding sports, I’d like to hear what’s going on in your community. Does your community charge students fees to participate in sports? What’s the level of sports participation in your community and why? Do you think there’s too much emphasis on sports?

I’d also like to hear your personal stories about the role extracurricular activities such as sports, chorus, and debate club have played in your life and the lives of your children. You can reach me at bmohl@massinc.org.