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.
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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.
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.
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.
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."
Title IX timeline: 50 years of halting progress across U.S.
Georgia Female College is the first women's college to open in the U.S.
Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to Congress.
U.S. women gain the right to vote.
A federal appeals court effectively says doctors can prescribe women birth control.
The first Truman Commission report pushes for more equal access to higher education, including ending race and religious discrimination.
U.S. Supreme Court rules “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” in landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.
Wilma Rudolph becomes the first American woman to win three gold medals in an Olympics. The star Black sprinter becomes a prominent advocate for civil rights.
The Commission on the Status of Women, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, finds widespread discrimination against women in the U.S. and urges federal courts that "the principle of equality become firmly established in constitutional doctrine.” Congress passes the Equal Pay Act.
The Civil Rights Act includes sex as one of the things that employers can't discriminate against. It also establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Patsy Mink of Hawaii becomes the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House; she later co-authors Title IX, the Early Childhood Education Act and the Women’s Educational Equality Act.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act gives federal funding to K-12 schools with low-income student populations. President Lyndon Johnson also signs the Higher Education Act of 1965 that gives college students access to loans, grants and other programs.
The National Organization for Women is established, calling for women to have “full participation in the mainstream of American society ... in truly equal partnership with men.”
Aretha Franklin covers Otis Redding’s 1965 hit, “Respect, ” and it quickly becomes a feminist anthem.
New York Democrat Shirley Chisholm becomes the first Black woman in Congress. She later becomes the first woman to seek nomination for president.
The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) is founded to govern collegiate women’s athletics and administer national championships.
Congress passes Title IX, which is signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Title IX states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Congress also passes the Equal Rights Amendment, but it never gets approval from the 38 states needed to become law.
The Women's Educational Equity Act provides grants and contracts to help with “nonsexist curricula,” as well as to help institutions meet Title IX requirements.
President Gerald Ford signs Title IX athletics regulations, which gives athletic departments up to three years to implement, after noting "it was the intent of Congress under any reason of interpretation to include athletics.”
NCAA challenges the legality of Title IX regarding athletics in a lawsuit that is dismissed two years later.
Three female students at Yale, two graduates and a male faculty member become the first to sue over sexual harassment under Title IX (Alexander v. Yale). It would fail on appeal.
Ann Meyers becomes the first woman to sign an NBA contract (Indiana Pacers, $500,000). She had been the first woman to receive a UCLA basketball scholarship.
U.S. officials put into effect the important three-prong test for Title IX compliance when it comes to athletics.
Title IX oversight is given to the Office of Civil Rights in the Education Department.
Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Louisiana Tech beats Cheyney State for the first NCAA women’s basketball title. Two months later, the AIAW folds, putting top women’s collegiate sports fully under the NCAA umbrella. Cheryl Miller scores 105 points in a high school game to kick off one of the greatest careers in basketball history.
Democrat Geraldine Ferraro becomes first woman to earn a vice presidential nomination from a major political party. The U.S. wins its first Olympic gold medal in women's basketball.
Congress overrides President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, making it mandatory that Title IX apply to any school that receives federal money.
The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act is passed. Under Title IX, schools with federal financial aid programs and athletics must provide annual information regarding gender equity, including roster sizes and certain budgets.
Connecticut wins the first of its 11 national titles under coach Geno Auriemma.
Female athletes win a lawsuit and force Brown to restore funding for women's gymnastics and volleyball after the saying the school violated Title IX when it turned both teams into donor-funded entities. The NBA clears the way for the Women’s National Basketball Association to begin play the following year.
Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick gives the United States a win over China in the World Cup final, invigorating women’s sports in the U.S.
Ashley Martin becomes the first woman to play and score in an Division I football game as a placekicker for Jacksonville State.
Danica Patrick wins the Japan 300 to become the first female victor in the top level of American open-wheel racing.
The United States’ 5-2 win over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final becomes the most viewed soccer game in the history of American television.
Citing Title IX, the Obama administration says transgender students at public schools should be allowed to use the bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity, the guidance was rescinded by the Trump administration. Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to win a major party nomination for president.
Serena Williams wins her 23rd Grand Slam title, second-most of all time.
Report rips NCAA for failing to uphold its commitment to gender equity by prioritizing its lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament “over everything else,” including women's championship events.
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