Issues

Equal Play

By David L. Ulin
Photography by Bryan Meltz

Should a child’s access to play and recreation be dependent on ethnicity, family income or geography? Renata Simril ’93, president and CEO of LA84 Foundation, says never. Play equity is an issue of social justice.

The Kids

Two of the groups supported by LA84 Foundation that provide play opportunities to children are Girls on the Run and Playworks. Kenzie Izzard participated in Girls on the Run as an elementary school student and she is now a junior teacher in the program. Read more about her here. Martin Hernandez also discovered Playworks when he was in elementary school, and he, too, is now a junior teacher. Read more about him here.

Let me begin with a confession: Until recently, I had never given play a lot of thought. Sure, I engaged in it — as a kid at school or during pickup games in parks with friends, as a parent with my children in a variety of ways. I was the T-ball coach who taught my 6-year-old son and his teammates how to hit the cutoff man or go halfway on a fly ball; I was the father who shot photos, proudly, of my daughter swimming for her high school team. But play as a matter of social equality? What, I would have asked, did that mean? No, play was a sideline, a luxury, frivolous, something to take for granted, less enrichment than an ancillary activity. Although I enjoyed it, I had more serious aspirations, or maybe it’s that I was never without access to the necessary bats and balls and gloves, and never forced to play on a field that was rutted or compromised by the proximity of gangs and drugs. If play was an issue, it wasn’t one that felt like it affected me.

And yet, as I’ve been learning lately, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Play is a key component in teaching responsibility and commitment, encouraging community and self-esteem. It also helps kids stay in school. Students in after-school sports programs are more likely to attend classes, in part because they have to if they want to play. They’re also more inclined to avoid alcohol and drugs. The ramifications of access to athletics, in other words, reverberate not only on the playing field.

An LA84 Foundation report describes a decline in sports participation among Los Angeles middle schoolers: “Statistics showed that the drop happened when youngsters hit the 11–14 age group because of a myriad of issues including peer pressure, interest in activities other than sports, body changes during adolescence and cost concerns.”

 

The paucity of equal programs is another example of how discrimination becomes institutionalized.

Adding to the problem is a lack of programs for kids in middle school. In response, LA84 has, since the 2008–09 academic year, given grants totaling $12.4 million to fund the Beyond the Bell Sports Program, which provides “organized sports … for any Los Angeles Unified School District student enrolled in the Beyond the Bell after-school program, at all LAUSD middle schools.” Most important, participation is free of charge.

Recently, I spent some time discussing this and related matters with Renata Simril ’93 who for the past three years has been president and CEO of LA84. “Service,” Simril likes to say, “is the price you pay for the space you occupy.” It could be the motto of the foundation she directs. Created in 1985, with $93 million — or 40% of the more than $200 million surplus from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games — as seed money, the foundation has long supported youth sports. “There’s a limit to what we can spend,” Simril acknowledges. “[The foundation] needs to be sustaining. But hopefully we can provide a model for other funders, especially in regard to public/private partnerships.” Among the athletes who have come through programs funded by LA84 grants are Venus and Serena Williams, as well as Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.

On Simril’s watch, however, LA84’s mission has expanded, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the foundation has zeroed in. Her great innovation has been to retool the organization as an advocate for “play equity,” or P.E. — the double meaning, since P.E. also stands for physical education, is intentional — with implications across communities.

“P.E. is a social justice issue,” declares the LA84 website. The numbers bear this out. “Kids from households with annual incomes greater than $150k participate at a rate of 90%, while only 71% of kids from households earning below $35K play sports,” Simril wrote in December on Forbes.com. “These results are consistent with national research by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which shows children from households that earn $100,000 and above are more than twice as likely to play sports than kids from households that earn $25,000 or less.” Such statistics are troubling if not entirely unexpected, echoing a host of social inequities. “I always thought it was a foregone conclusion,” Simril told me, that all kids had access. “I was as surprised by the data as anyone.”

In 2016, LA84 put out its Youth Sports Survey for Los Angeles County; an updated version was released in December 2018. Among its findings: “17.7% of L.A. County youth did not play a sport last year.” When it comes to physical education classes, “79% of Los Angeles County youth are enrolled, … down from 88 percent in 2016, with Hispanic/Latino and African American households experiencing the biggest decline among race/ethnic groups.”

For Simril, this is the point. “There’s a 20% gap,” she explains, “based on income, as to who plays and who doesn’t. Through our networks, we want to engage, educate and inspire.” What she’s saying has everything to do with her vision of LA84 as a hub or center, both in Southern California and beyond. Each fall, the foundation hosts a summit that Simril regards as a place to bring people together, to create a national movement, as it were. The 2018 summit drew speakers Tony Dungy, former NFL coach; Sal Masekela, TV host and producer; Cari Champion, ESPN on-air personality; and Metta World Peace, former pro basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as more than 400 participants.

 

Play is a key component in teaching responsibility and commitment, encouraging community and self-esteem. It also helps kids stay in school

Adding to the problem is a lack of programs for kids in middle school. In response, LA84 has, since the 2008–09 academic year, given grants totaling $12.4 million to fund the Beyond the Bell Sports Program, which provides “organized sports … for any Los Angeles Unified School District student enrolled in the Beyond the Bell after-school program, at all LAUSD middle schools.” Most important, participation is free of charge.

Recently, I spent some time discussing this and related matters with Renata Simril ’93 who for the past three years has been president and CEO of LA84. “Service,” Simril likes to say, “is the price you pay for the space you occupy.” It could be the motto of the foundation she directs. Created in 1985, with $93 million — or 40% of the more than $200 million surplus from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games — as seed money, the foundation has long supported youth sports. “There’s a limit to what we can spend,” Simril acknowledges. “[The foundation] needs to be sustaining. But hopefully we can provide a model for other funders, especially in regard to public/private partnerships.” Among the athletes who have come through programs funded by LA84 grants are Venus and Serena Williams, as well as Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.

On Simril’s watch, however, LA84’s mission has expanded, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the foundation has zeroed in. Her great innovation has been to retool the organization as an advocate for “play equity,” or P.E. — the double meaning, since P.E. also stands for physical education, is intentional — with implications across communities.

“P.E. is a social justice issue,” declares the LA84 website. The numbers bear this out. “Kids from households with annual incomes greater than $150k participate at a rate of 90%, while only 71% of kids from households earning below $35K play sports,” Simril wrote in December on Forbes.com. “These results are consistent with national research by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which shows children from households that earn $100,000 and above are more than twice as likely to play sports than kids from households that earn $25,000 or less.” Such statistics are troubling if not entirely unexpected, echoing a host of social inequities. “I always thought it was a foregone conclusion,” Simril told me, that all kids had access. “I was as surprised by the data as anyone.”

In 2016, LA84 put out its Youth Sports Survey for Los Angeles County; an updated version was released in December 2018. Among its findings: “17.7% of L.A. County youth did not play a sport last year.” When it comes to physical education classes, “79% of Los Angeles County youth are enrolled, … down from 88 percent in 2016, with Hispanic/Latino and African American households experiencing the biggest decline among race/ethnic groups.”

For Simril, this is the point. “There’s a 20% gap,” she explains, “based on income, as to who plays and who doesn’t. Through our networks, we want to engage, educate and inspire.” What she’s saying has everything to do with her vision of LA84 as a hub or center, both in Southern California and beyond. Each fall, the foundation hosts a summit that Simril regards as a place to bring people together, to create a national movement, as it were. The 2018 summit drew speakers Tony Dungy, former NFL coach; Sal Masekela, TV host and producer; Cari Champion, ESPN on-air personality; and Metta World Peace, former pro basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as more than 400 participants.

 

“Talent,” Simril insists, “is universal. Opportunity is not.”

There were discussions of gender equity — another core issue — and the necessity of sports philanthropy. Two community organizations, including Boyle Heights’ Proyecto Pastoral, were awarded $25,000 apiece (part of a three-year, $150,000 grant collaboration between LA84 and the NBA Players Association Foundation) to refurbish their basketball courts.

“We’re the sports capital of the world,” Simril observes of Los Angeles. “And what we’re trying to do at the foundation is to think about sports as a bridge to success.” Again, she notes, this goes beyond the playing field. “There are lots of families in trauma. There are gangs and drugs and broken homes. There are parents in prison.” Can athletics solve those problems? Of course, it can’t. But it can help by “putting kids at the forefront,” by providing access to opportunities.

In that sense, what may be most essential about LA84 is the connections it inspires. Play equity is not just a local issue, after all. In 2018, Oakland cut half a million dollars of high school sports funding. More than 100 New York public schools — serving mostly African American and Latino students — offer no athletics at all. Among the presenters at the 2018 summit was David Garcia-Rosen, director of school culture/athletic director at the Bronx Academy of Letters and an organizer of New York’s Fair Play Coalition, which works for play equity in schools. He spoke about teaching students to be their own advocates, especially in underserved communities.

“It was a movement,” Garcia-Rosen told attendees. “We needed to empower the students to fight for the right to play.” As an example, he cited a rally after the city dismantled the Small Schools Athletic League he had created. Students came to City Hall wearing black gloves, fists raised in emulation of 1968 Olympics protestors John Carlos and Tommie Smith. The students chanted, “Civil rights matter” and “Let them play.” What was developed here, Garcia-Rosen argued, were life skills. Athletics, he asserted, “literally turns shy students into leaders and it turns dropouts into graduates.”

Ultimately, it all comes back to play equity and what this teaches us about ourselves. The paucity of equal programs is another example of how discrimination becomes institutionalized.

“Talent,” Simril insists, “is universal. Opportunity is not. And sports teach necessary enrichment skills: to show up on time, to show up for the team, to handle winning and losing, to see beyond ourselves.”

Enrichment is the operative word here; it is what LA84 is all about. More than 10,000 students participate in Beyond the Bell; what would happen if its programs weren’t there? Statistically, those students most vulnerable to dropping out are age 12 and 13 — the very age group Beyond the Bell serves. It’s an issue that affects every one of us, regardless of who we are or where we live.

“Life is neither a marathon nor a sprint,” Simril believes, “it’s a relay race.” She’s referring to the necessary collaborations (between schools and funders, communities and activists, parents and kids and teachers) LA84 means to foment. All the same, she admits, we don’t have time to waste. “What we do,” she says, “it’s not difficult. But it is intentional. And we need to change the mindset. Sports have a unique ability to engage kids, but it’s up to us to think together to create the opportunities, to develop sustainable programs and ways to fund them. The children are waiting for us.”

David L. Ulin, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine, is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles” and “The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time.” Follow him @davidulin.

This article appeared in the spring 2019 issue (Vol. 9, No. 1) of LMU Magazine.