Repercussions for Rowing post COVID

In the coming months, after life resumes, after the worst has passed, even after a treatment or vaccine is widely dispersed, the United States and the rest of the world will continue to feel the repercussions of the COVID-19 outbreak. While we cannot know how things will change, what the new “normal” will look like, we do know that somethings will certainly be different.

One thing we may very well see because of Coronavirus might be a decrease in size and diversity of youth sports – especially sports with a high cost of participation, such as rowing.

In the past couple of months, the economic toll of the pandemic has reached record-setting heights. Unemployment rose to 14.7 percent in April, the worst since the Great Depression as over 20 million people lost their jobs. Families everywhere are struggling to make ends meet, some more than others.

Even before the virus, many people in the U.S. were struggling to enter their children into sports due to the cost. The Aspen Institute, through its Project Play initiative, found that in 2018 only 38% of youth aged six to 12 years old played on team sports on a regular basis. This is a 45% decrease from a decade earlier.

In follow up research, The Aspen Institute found that cost was a major deterrent for families. The average amount families spent on sports was $693 per child, per sport, per year. It is important to note that the average income of the Aspen Institute survey respondent was $90,908 while the average income for all families is $63,179 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Increasingly, there is a lack of affordable and recreation-focused sports leagues for youth. Club and elite teams can be extremely expensive and are often not an option for mid-to-low income households. While scholarship programs, such as those offered by the George Pocock Rowing Foundation, make a difference, they cannot cover the sheer numbers of youth athletes who will be forced to retire from sports due to increased financial burdens placed on many families.

This will not only affect the size of teams, but sports across the country will also see a decline in participants of color, those from low-income backgrounds, and participants with health concerns or whose families face medical burdens. While it is certainly not the case that all wealthy families look one way and all mid-to-low income families look another, it is the case that racial and ethnic minorities in the United States are often faced with harsher social and economic realities. While many people from all racial backgrounds will be affected by COVID and forced to drop out of sports, it is important to note that non-white racial and ethnic minorities will be forced to do so at a higher rate than their white and white-adjacent counterparts.

The United States, touting its diversity as the “great melting pot”, is far from an equitable country. In the face of Coronavirus this is laid bare, though much of this information is not at the forefront of the news, it is there for the finding if you know where to look.

Nikole Hannah Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New Yorker Magazine, knows where to look.

“When Covid-19 first hit America hard [in March], the narrative was that it was the great equalizer, that in such a divided nation, our shared humanity meant we would be equal in our suffering,” Jones said in a tweet in early April. “But those of us who understand racial caste in America knew this could never be true.”

In a recent survey conducted by The Aspen Institute’s Project Play in partnership with North Carolina State University and Utah State University, 50% of all parents who participated worry about their children getting sick with COVID due to sports.

This number was higher for black parents, 59% worry their children will fall ill and 56% worry they themselves will be sick if they choose to support their athlete in the stands. Black and African American communities are among those hardest hit by the pandemic, seeing a mortality rate over two times higher than other races.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2019 the average income for black and Hispanic families are well below the average income for the entire U.S.A. at an average of $41,361 for black families and $51,450 for Hispanic families. Parental fear and preexisting economic inequality, compounded with the financial strain that the virus has placed on many families spell trouble for youth sports. These financial stresses on top of the daunting price of many sports teams mean that not only will sports become smaller and less diverse, but many sports may face dwindling income that will leave individual teams struggling to stay economically viable. This will certainly include youth rowing clubs.

Rowing, in the Pacific Northwest, can cost anywhere from $500 for a season to $2000 or more and this is often before the added costs of regatta fees, transportation, uniform, etc. This is an unthinkable price for many, especially for families who are experiencing economic fallout due to recent COVID-related lay-offs and unemployment.

The prices for joining these teams may only increase. Sports organizations are struggling to stay afloat after losing money on lost seasons and those that remain may have to increase prices to accommodate smaller team sizes because of social-distancing precautions and a general reduction in participation.

These things all spell potential disaster for the future and diversity of youth sports. The teams that will be most severely affected: rowing and other high-cost sports.

It is the mission of the George Pocock Rowing Foundation to see more students able to access and participate in rowing. Instead, we may see youth taking a large brunt of the stress and burdens of their family, forcing them to drop out of rowing and other sports as more children will be called upon to help with household duties or tasked with earning additional income.

Protecting youth sports and the ability for American youth to continue to be kids will be one of many issues that will face the nation as the aftershock of this event unfolds. Families facing hard truths may have to ask their children to forego their passion for sport and sacrifice part of their childhood to help keep the family afloat.

The repercussions of this for youth rowing may be devastating. At the very least it will mean rowing becomes more expensive, more exclusive, and less diverse.

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