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Disparities in Nebraska youth sports need to be addressed, advocates say

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Growing up, Johnny Gress played T-ball and baseball through the YMCA until that day at recess when he discovered the sport that really drew his interest: soccer.

Perhaps it was only fitting that Gress fell in love with the sport. Growing up in a Hispanic family, soccer was always No. 1 at home.

"We didn't talk about the NFL, the NBA, the MLB, we talked about the soccer games going on," said Gress, whose favorite club is Real Madrid.

So after a few lunchtime scrimmages, Gress' father found a YMCA team for his son to join. Soon, Gress was playing in more competitive leagues and hitting the road for tournaments.

But the disparities between members of Gress' team and the opponents they would lace up their cleats against were hard to miss and discouraging for an up-and-coming soccer star.

His experience is a common one across the state, say advocates, who argue a "pay-to-play" philosophy is leading to increasing disparities and inequities in the youth sports landscape, from children's leagues to high school athletics.

"We would play teams with guys in all-matching backpacks and uniforms. We showed up in drawstring bags and basketball shorts," Gress said. "It almost felt like we were a step behind."

He later considered joining a select team after taking part in a tryout, but the upfront fees were too much.

For as long as he can remember, his family was enrolled in the federal free- and reduced-lunch program when Gress and his siblings were in school.

Johnny Gress

Johnny Gress.

That didn't stop him from quickly rising through the soccer ranks, eventually making varsity at Lincoln North Star High School his sophomore year. But again, the disparities became quickly apparent: The players that had played for years on the select team circuit were now playing together on other high school teams.

"You'd see the games on the schedule ... and you automatically know you're going to lose," he said.

Gress' story is ultimately one of success. He earned a scholarship to play soccer at York College after graduating in 2015, but he knows not everyone has the same story, which he shared at a recent Community Health Endowment of Lincoln forum on the disparities in youth sports.

The discussion is part of a project created by Steve Dosskey, who became increasingly interested in the issue from his experience as the junior varsity boys soccer coach at Lincoln Southeast.

Dosskey, a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Raikes School for Computer Science and Management, began collecting data — from Lincoln Public Schools, the Nebraska School Activities Association, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department and others — looking for correlations.

"One of the upsides to the pandemic was it gave me a lot of time to sit at home and dive into this project," said Dosskey, who works for a local software startup.

He mapped out each Class A school's percentage of free- and reduced-lunch students — a metric schools use to measure poverty — and looked at which schools qualified for state competition and eventually won championships.

The findings, while not surprising, quantified longstanding gaps between schools with higher poverty levels and achievement on the field. 

Over the past 20 years, 75% of Class A state qualifiers in all sports came from schools in the lower half of free- and reduced-lunch enrollment. For state champions, that figure grows to 81%.

Extrapolated even further, the disparities become even more evident. For example, the schools in the lowest quarter of the poverty index accounted for 44% of state qualifiers and 58% of state champions.

Schools with the most poverty — those in the top quarter of free- and reduced-lunch enrollment — made up only about 9% of state qualifiers and 10% of champions.

The gaps play out on the local level, too, Dosskey found. 

From 2003 to 2022, teams from the three LPS high schools with the lowest poverty levels — Lincoln East, Southeast and Southwest — had vastly more state-qualifying seasons than teams from LPS' other three high schools.

Youth Sports challenges to championships

Tryout rates and overall performance also roughly correlated to a school's poverty level, the data showed.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. In boys soccer, schools like Grand Island and Omaha South, with large Hispanic populations, have proven to be outliers. And in Class A, the correlations are less strong in certain sports, such as basketball and track and field.

The issue is, in part, one of access, Dosskey argues.

Before high school, student-athletes typically participate in either recreational leagues or on select teams.

Recreational leagues, like those offered through the YMCA, are often more accessible and less cost-prohibitive, but often less competitive than select teams. Select teams, on the other hand, typically have greater access to better facilities, better equipment and better competition.

"None of this is to denigrate the experience of club sports, but that opportunity and experience comes at a cost that a lot of people simply can't afford," he said. 

The disparities have an impact on the classroom as well, Dosskey's data shows.

Students in grades 4-8 who came from low-income households were more likely to score worse on the PACER test, which measures aerobic fitness. Lower aerobic fitness has been shown to have an impact on student learning outcomes. 

Another notable stat Dosskey found: Children in the U.S. from households where the income exceeds $100,000 participated in sports at almost twice the rate of those from households with incomes less than $25,000.

"As a youth sports coach, I fully acknowledge that this is just sports and there are a lot of more pressing problems in the world, but youth sports are such a formative experience for young people. It really does have strong impacts on later outcomes in life and who a kid grows up to become," he said.

When John Goodwin was growing up in Chicago, youth sports — especially football — were a lifesaver for a young Black man like himself. 

Not only did they provide valuable life lessons for Goodwin, the executive director of the Malone Center, but they kept him away from gangs and drugs.

"It basically formed ... who I am now and how I operate on a daily basis," he said.

But he knows not every child has the same access to those opportunities. Since coming to the Malone Center in 2017, Goodwin has helped lead youth sports initiatives as part of the cultural center's mission of ending multigenerational poverty.

The center offers a variety of affordable club sports options, including in football, basketball and track and field. Donations to the center help fund things like uniforms and equipment.

"I think fees are the lowest in city, if not the state, in regards to the responsibility for payment," he said.

Goodwin would like to see more collaboration between agencies such as Lincoln Public Schools and community centers to invest in youth sports.

"We need to get in the mindset of being together and collaborating with one another to make sure all of our youth have the same experience," he said.

HAC boys soccer tournament, North Star vs. East, 4.8.15

Lincoln North Star's Johnny Gress jumps to head the ball over Lincoln East's Benjamin Lucy (5) during a first-round conference tournament match in 2015.

While Dosskey's research project is still in the early stages, he's working with the Community Health Endowment, which invests in health-related causes and programs in Lincoln, to put forward recommendations to combat the disparities.

For Gress, coaching soccer is how he connects with the sport these days. He's looking forward to the day when his own children — a 2-year-old daughter and newborn son — can participate.

While it's too early to know which route they'll take, Gress hopes they will find the same benefits he did.

"I didn't play for a club team and I still have so many great, youth sports memories and great connections," he said. "And, ultimately, having those connections opened up so many doors."

Contact the writer at zhammack@journalstar.com or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @HammackLJS

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