NEW YORK — Like most epidemics, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely where it all started. When it hit mass disaster, however, can be identified rather simply.
It was summer 2010, and school districts across the nation found themselves in financial hardship that ranged from “pants tightening” measures to “everything must go!” The Charlotte Mecklenburg School system was in the latter, and it was facing a tough decision: Blow through budget projects and risk payroll for employees, or find a way to cut $1.5 million from the district budget. That happened to be the exact number allotted for middle school sports, and the district summarily eliminated all middle school programs in the interest of fiscal relief. In the end, it took a last-minute donation from Michael Jordan via the Charlotte Bobcats to keep middle school sports in action for the 2010-11 season, an accomplishment that was feted as a PR and personal victory for Jordan while highlighting the profound issues school districts face when trying to raise money for athletic programs.
The crisis in Charlotte was not an isolated incident. According to data compiled by Up2Us Sports, at current funding/cutback rates, 27 percent of U.S. public high schools will not have any school sports programs by 2020. This despite the fact that high school student athletes are absent from school 50 percent less than non-student athletes and have an 11 percent greater graduation rate, statistics that are even more pronounced in low-income areas.
As these funding issues have continued right up to today districts and individual programs have searched far and wide for any kind of answer. While pay-for-play policies have helped in some areas, they’re not applicable on an even footing and can exacerbate the divide in social class. That’s what makes Tuesday’s announcement about DICK’S Sporting Goods’ cooperative partnership with the well-respected school donation site DonorsChoose,org so important. Together, the two institutions are trying to show that there’s a model through which districts can continue to fund all the programs their students need, all while helping donors feel good about themselves and their investment.
“Some of the budget cuts in team sports are really coming to a head,” Charles Best, the CEO of DonorsChoose.org, told USA TODAY High School Sports. ” In a few years time more than a quarter of public high schools will not have any sports because of these cuts. Students in low-income communities will be more likely to attend schools without sports. I think people stereotypically think that kids in low-income communities will pursue sports because it’s a way out, but in fact that they’re less than half as likely to have that access. Even though sports have all kinds of positive impact.
“The $1.5 million that DICK’S is putting behind this effort in the first year, because it’s a match it’s $3M in the first year in funding for public school sports. I think it will take a serious bite out of the problem we’re discussing.”
As Best alluded to, DICK’S commitment to the effort is measured by financial impact, with a comprehensive matching program setting the groundwork for a total investment of more than $3 million in school sports programs nationwide. Critically, with the model pioneered by Donors Choose, all donors will be allowed to choose which donation drives they take part in, just as investors can with Kickstarter campaigns and other publicly sourced investment efforts.
Best said that the inspiration behind DonorsChoose.org’s involvement in Sports Matter came from his own life. The DonorsChoose.org founder became a teacher because he so admired his high school wrestling coach. That set the wheels in motion to build DonorsChoose, which now is poised to provide a platform for school sports donations at a higher level than we’ve seen before.
That natural circle of fate isn’t lost on Best, who noted that his wrestling coach, Mr. Buxton has since donated to a wrestling coaching project on DonorsChoose.org. Best hopes that many more like him will step forward and do the same, some perhaps inspired by a host of celebrity voices supporting the initiative.
On hand at Tuesday’s announcement were recent Women’s Wold Cup superstar Carli Lloyd, top overall NBA Draft pick Karl Anthony Towns, New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, actor Michael B. Johnson and, perhaps most vocally, former NFL coach turned ESPN analyst Jon Gruden.
“It shocked me when I saw that coaches weren’t getting paid,” Gruden told USA TODAY High School Sports. “And to be honest, a lot of coaches I know, high school and youth coaches, have quit because there was nothing to take home. When you eliminate coaches, Jiminy Christmas, that’s horrible. A lot of these coaches are the most influential people in these places. And sometimes coaches are the best teachers that these kids have ever had. It’s really troublesome to me that we are eliminating coaching, and eliminating school sports.
“My goal the last couple years, after witnessing these issues on a first-hand basis, the state of affairs, has been to help however I can. A lot of high schools where I used to go to recruit are in a totally different light right now in terms of kids going out for football and sports. We have to hold on here, and make sure that everyone is aware of football and all sports. In every state, every place I’ve been, this is a humongous, terrible issue. We shouldn’t (let that happen).”
Searching for a personal tale of the impact of sports? Look no further than Marshall, who was passionate in his advocacy for school sports and the impact it can have on the community as a whole.
“Football and sports saved my life,” Marshall, the new New York Jets receiver, said at the press event introducing the Sports Matter campaign. “If I didn’t have sports, like the kids who don’t have sports now, they don’t have a chance. I try to make sure that my sport doesn’t define me, but it’s important to focus on it because it gives us to the opportunity to be more.
“We are products of our environment. I’m now transitioning from Chicago to New York, and I’ve been working in the South Side of Chicago, Chi Rock, where they roll around in tanks. And we’re cutting funding for sports, which was the way out. There are people like me there; it may take us 15 years to figure everything out, but I got it, and they can get it.”
Paul Caccamo, the Founder and CEO of Up2US Sports, was even more direct in his explanation of why school sports are so important.
“When young girls in lower income areas belong to a sports team, they are much less likely to become young mothers,” Caccamo said at the panel discussion. “When young boys are involved in sports they can be pushed by coaches not to join gangs, which are often the popular group in the public. That’s why sports matter. … Everything in our society has become so commodified, we’ve now reached a point where character development is no longer accessible in low income areas. We look at an education system that already has high dropout rates in low income communities. It will rise if we cut sports.”
Three million dollars, half of it from DICK’S, can go a long way toward soothing the sting of many of these cutbacks. And if that success can help inspire a change in longer term donor behavior that marks a true culture shift? Then a much-needed school sports revolution may truly be afoot, the mere prospect of which has the likes of Best and Gruden very excited.
“Sustainability is a major issue, and it’s important that teams that participate will see support in a long running way,” Best said. “I’d like to think that’s why DICK’S has brought fundraising to bear in a critical way. The citizen donors who are donating are likely to becoming supporters of that program. … We think we can engage an entire group of citizen philanthropists who will become ongoing supporters of the programs.”
Added Gruden: “Every great thing starts, in business or football or life, starts with a spark. There’s a light or an energy that you have to really look into. We have a real issue in this country and we have to do something fast. … We’re going to be relentless, and I’m confident we’re going to get a lot of momentum going and do great things. Momentum is the greatest problem solver I’ve experienced, and we’re going to get a lot of it here.”