Participation in School Athletics

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Trends in school athletics participation

Trends in the proportion of students participating to any degree in school athletic teams during the school year vary by grade level. Among eighth graders, participation rates remained steady from 1991 to 2001, fluctuating from 67 to 69 percent. Eighth graders’ participation fell from 69 to 62 percent between 2001 and 2007, increased to 66 percent in 2012, and declined slightly in 2014 to 63 percent, where it remained in 2017. Among tenth graders, participation has been fairly constant since 1991, ranging from 59 to 64 percent. Participation in school athletics among tenth graders was at 59 percent in 2017. Among twelfth graders, participation decreased slightly from 1991 to 2003, from 56 to 53 percent. The proportion increased to 58 percent in 2012, before falling to 55 percent in 2017 (Appendix 1).

Differences by gender

Historically, males have higher rates of participation in school athletics than females. However, since 1991, the earliest year for which data are available, the gender gap has declined for eighth, tenth, and twelfth graders. The gap in 2017 was greatest among tenth-grade students (8 percentage points), a decline from 17 points in 1991. The recent decline from 2013 to 2017 seems to be driven more by a decrease in males’ participation than an increase in females’ participation. The smallest gap is among eighth graders: 3 percentage points in 2017. While the eighth-grade gender gap was smaller than in 1991 (7 percentage points), most of this narrowing occurred from 1991 to 1999, during which time the gap fell from 7 to 2 percentage points (Appendix 1).

Differences by race and Hispanic origin*

Disparities between groups of students in their rates of participation can reflect a number of factors, including cultural expectations, access to required equipment, and access to transportation. In 2017, among eighth graders, a higher percentage of non-Hispanic white students than non-Hispanic black students participated in school athletics (67 and 65 percent, respectively). This gap is wider in tenth grade, where 64 percent of non-Hispanic white students participated in athletics, compared to 56 percent of non-Hispanic black students. In the twelfth grade, the trend reverses, with 64 percent of non-Hispanic black students participating in athletics, compared to 58 percent of non-Hispanic white students. At all three grade levels, Hispanic students were the least likely to participate in school athletics; for example, among tenth graders, 52 percent of Hispanic students, compared to 64 and 56 percent of non-Hispanic white and black students, respectively, participated.

*Estimates for white and black youth exclude Hispanic youth and youth of two or more races. Hispanic youth include persons identifying as Mexican American or Chicano, Cuban American, Puerto Rican, or other Hispanic or Latino and no other racial/ethnic group.

Differences by parental education

Teens with more-educated parents are more likely to participate in school sports than those whose parents completed fewer years of school. For example, among tenth grade students in 2017, 46 percent of those whose parents did not complete high school participated in school sports, compared with 72 percent of those with a parent who had attended graduate school. These disparities are similar for eighth and twelfth graders (Appendix 1).

Differences by college plans

Youth who say that they “probably will” or “definitely will” graduate from a four-year college are more likely than other youth to participate in school athletics. For example, in 2017, 58 percent of twelfth graders who planned to complete four years of college participated, compared with 39 percent of twelfth-grade students who did not have such plans (Appendix 1).

Other estimates

State and local estimates

2017 estimates for high school student participation in sports teams (including those outside of school) are available for select states and cities from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) at https://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/App/Results.aspx.

International estimates

While there are no international estimates of school sports participation, estimates for physical activity are available from the Health Behavior in School-aged Children study at http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/339211/WHO_ObesityReport_2017_v3.pdf?ua=1 (See Chapter 4).

Data and appendices

Data source

Child Trends’ original analysis of data from Monitoring the Future: A Continuing Study of American Youth, 1991-2017.

Raw data source

Monitoring the Future: http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/

Appendices

Appendix 1. Percentage of Eighth, Tenth, and Twelfth Graders Participating in School Athletics: 1991-2017

Background

Definition

Participation in school athletics includes all students who have participated to any degree in school athletic teams during the school year.

Citation

Child Trends. (2019). Participation in school athletics. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/participation-in-school-athletics.