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Like any successful coach, Jon Gruden understands the importance of statistics. He doesn't like the numbers he's seeing about youth sports participation and funding.
So the Super Bowl-winning coach and current ESPN analyst is doing something to invigorate grass roots sports. Gruden is using his popularity and impressive audience reach by combining with DICK'S Sporting Goods and its foundation for the Sports Matter program.
DICK'S has made a $25 million, multi-year commitment to support youth athletic programs, including donations to local sports teams. Sports Matter aims to address the growing issue of underfunded youth athletics nationwide, and DICK'S Foundation will match community donations to award up to $2 million in grants to disbanded or financially challenged youth sports teams.
"I know this is a huge issue," says Gruden, who has three sons. "Less sports participation and a lack of funding are a real concern to me. Youth sports are being diminished in our country, and I learned so many life lessons through my participation in them.
"We are talking about kids just getting started and they need to be afforded the opportunity to play, and be encouraged to play. Quality coaching and teaching matters. I want these students and young people to be taught and encouraged to play sports."
Surveys have shown a decline in grass roots sports participation throughout the United States. In the four most popular U.S. team participation sports — basketball, soccer, baseball and football — among boys and girls ages 6 through 17, the drop was roughly 4 percent from 2008-2012, according to an examination of data from youth leagues, school sports groups and industry associations reported by the Wall Street Journal.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in high school football was down 2.3 percent in the 2012-13 season compared to the 2008-09 season. High-school basketball participation fell 1.8 percent in that time span.
Gruden had a taste of the problems when he was fired by Tampa Bay, which he led to the 2002 NFL title.
"I got a chance to help coach the high school football team of my son as an assistant line coach," Gruden says. "The first thing I realized is there was no budget: no footballs, no bags to block, and a lot of kids couldn't afford shoulder pads."
This was in football hotbed Florida.
"I think every sport is being damaged," he adds. "The quality of coaching is not what it used to be. They can't afford to do it because there's no budget. Teams are much smaller than in recent years in numbers. I have seen it with my own two eyes. In Florida, you can play all year round, and yet a lot of our youth sports are diminished.
"I want to encourage our young people to compete and play and learn about work ethic and being part of a team and how to compete. These are all important life lessons."
Gruden plans to call on supporters from pro leagues, colleges, high schools and youth organizations, from the private sector and from his contacts in broadcasting. As is his style, he seeks to hit the challenge head-on. He believes Sports Matter will be just the right tool to reverse the trend of decline in American youth sports — a direction that has damaged U.S. sports on the international competition level, too.
"I will encourage people I know to encourage people they know. Every little bit will help," Gruden says.
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