Student Journalists Examine Impacts of ‘Race and Place’ on Decisions
By Josh Land
Photo by Freddy Wolfe/University of Maryland
Parents of color have significantly different perceptions than white parents about the dangers and potential benefits of youth tackle football leagues, according to a four-month investigation published Tuesday by University of Maryland student journalists.
The project was a combined effort of UMD’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, and developed in partnership with PBS NewsHour, which will air a segment produced by students from UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. The six-story project was published by Capital News Service, the college’s student-powered news outlet.
Amid years of declining participation in the wake of medical studies linking the sport to brain injury and long-term behavioral issues, Merrill journalists interviewed dozens of parents, coaches, youth players, medical researchers and former pro football players, and the Povich and Howard centers worked with Ipsos to conduct an in-depth national public opinion poll of parents.
It found that just over 40% of Black and Hispanic parents believe youth tackle football could lead to a college scholarship, while only 23% of white parents believe the same. The gap between parents of color and white parents was even wider concerning the possibility of a professional playing career.
The poll also found that 23% of Black parents think the appropriate age for children to start playing tackle football is 9 years old or younger compared to 14% of white parents and 16% of Hispanic parents.
“This is perhaps the deepest look to date at how parents weigh risks and benefits of youth tackle football at a time when we’re learning more about the health risks, particularly for the youngest children,” said project leader and Povich Center Director Mark Hyman. “The benefits of youth tackle football are real — exposure to teamwork, discipline, even a chance for a college scholarship or pro career. But at what cost?”
The Povich and Howard centers also conducted a data analysis of the hometowns of more than 8,000 college football players competing for 68 teams that play in Power Five conferences, the top leagues in college football. Journalists working on the project used the data to locate cities and small towns that produce the most players per capita in the U.S., which helped them identify ideal places for on-the-ground reporting.
Reporters conducted interviews in Maryland and throughout the country. They visited Atlanta suburb Buford, Georgia, where players begin joining tackle football teams at age 5; and Lexington, Mississippi, located in the second-poorest county in the poorest state in the U.S. Lexington, with a population of fewer than 1,200, sends players to major college football programs at one of the highest per-capita rates in the country.
“This project shows the power of marrying innovative data work with good reporting,” said Howard Center Director Kathy Best. “That’s one of the reasons we love collaborating with the Povich Center to push the boundaries of sports coverage to tell stories that illuminate issues important in people's lives and in communities.”
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