Fewer American boys pushing the limits in sports

February 15, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

Sitting in glass cases at virtually every high school in the United States are trophies for outstanding track-and-field performances.

At Tulare High in Central California are 1948-vintage awards of Bob Mathias, a decathlete who became the youngest track-and-field winner in Olympic history. At Wichita East High in south-central Kansas are the 1964 mementos of Jim Ryun, the first high school student to break the four-minute mile. At Baker High in northeast Florida are honors for sprinter Houston McTear, considered the world's fastest human in 1975.

Those plaques and statuettes stood for years as testaments to the ever-increasing speed and agility of teen-age boys. Last year, the record-breaking came to a halt.

For the first time in more than five decades, no national records were set for boys' outdoor track in the United States.

This is the latest and perhaps most startling signal that teen-age boys generally are not running as fast or jumping as high as generations past. Starting in the late 1970s, there has been a slow and subtle deterioration of boys athletics in school districts nationwide.

The number of boys participating in basketball, wrestling and swimming has declined by about one-third, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In some sports, entire programs have been dismantled because of budget cuts.

Just last fall in Baltimore County, Lansdowne High had to forfeit its first three football games because it had only 10 varsity players at the start of the season. Lansdowne eventually kicked off its season with 13 players.

But Ned Sparks, executive secretary of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, which governs athletics for the state's public schools, says the Lansdowne situation is an isolated incident in Maryland.

"We track it [participation] every year," Mr. Sparks said yesterday. "We do a survey. It took a dip two, three years ago, but has rebounded the last two years. I don't see it becoming a problem. I do see some isolated teams that for one reason or another aren't attractive. However, you have other teams in other areas in other sports where it's still the thing to do."

Nationwide, that is not the case, says Jack Shepard, editor of High School Track, a national compilation of boys' records. When it comes to high school sports today, "a lot of people are watching instead of doing," he says. "If the trends don't change, we may not have much to watch, either."

A shortage of coaches, changes in enrollment patterns, rising crime and increased emphasis on girls' sports have affected boys' participation and performance on courts and playing fields.

"Too many youngsters today are missing out on the camaraderie, the competition, the sense of values -- all the things that sports have traditionally provided young people," said Vern Seefeldt, a sports researcher at Michigan State University.

Middle-class youths often have easier access than poor children to public parks and private clubs. As a result, relatively affluent teen-agers are affected less by cuts in public school athletic budgets.

Nationwide, the number of teen-age boys who compete on high school teams dropped from 4.4 million in 1977 to 3.4 million last year -- a decline of nearly 22 percent.

A nearly equivalent drop in school enrollment does not fully explain the decline. Most high schools, regardless of enrollment trends, field a varsity basketball or football team with a relatively constant number of players. Much of the decline in team participation occurs, experts say, when athletic programs are cut or lose popularity with students.

A shortage of coaches has been one of the biggest problems facing high school athletics. Physical education teachers traditionally have doubled as high school coaches, but the number of mandatory physical education classes has plummeted.

In some cities, the private sector has tried to compensate.

In Detroit and Chicago, professional athletes have joined to provide funds to keep public school athletic programs afloat.

In Baltimore, the Abell Foundation provided money to launch an after-school baseball league -- for which players must show good attendance. Last year, there were 24 teams. This year, there will be 48.

Another foundation-supported program, Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities, was started by baseball scout John T. Young, who found that the national pastime increasingly has become a white, middle-class sport.

"There are too few opportunities for too many kids," said Anita DeFrantz, president of the foundation and the first black woman to compete on the U.S. Olympic rowing team. "There is so much that needs to be done."

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