Manfred: Kids playing sports is vital

MLB Commissioner speaks at event to stem declining athletics among youth and in high schools

Manfred: Kids playing sports is vital

NEW YORK -- Commissioner Rob Manfred joined forces Tuesday night with such luminaries as tennis star Serena Williams, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Missy Franklin to raise awareness and discuss solutions for a growing concern: An estimated 27 percent of U.S. public high schools will have no sports by 2020 at the current rate of cuts in funding for those programs.

"The most important thing about this evening is for baseball to show its commitment to young people participating in sports," Manfred said. "We always hope their first choice is baseball, but if it isn't baseball, it should be some other athletic activity."

Manfred was a panelist for the "Sports Matter" event conducted by Dick's Sporting Goods at the Conrad Hotel & Resort in Manhattan. Attendees first viewed the premiere of "Keepers of the Game," an entry in the Tribeca Film Festival that documents the perseverance of Native American young women playing on their high school lacrosse team in Fort Covington, N.Y. Then panelists talked about leading a campaign to keep kids active, especially those in lower-income areas where a disproportionate percentage of cuts happen.

Major League Baseball community initiatives

Play Ball, the initiative of MLB and USA Baseball, was cited as an example of being proactive in building grassroots interest in sports, along with Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and the Urban Youth Academy program. Manfred said the significance of MLB's commitment to youth is twofold.

"Number one, baseball is an American treasure," he said. "There is something uniquely American about our sport, and we feel we have an obligation to do everything possible to pass the game on to the next generation so that that piece of our culture is not lost. That's no rap on any other sport; it's just that baseball is a little different because of its role in our culture.

"Secondly ... it doesn't matter really whether we pick up a percentage point from soccer or lose one to lacrosse. Really the enemy here is electronics and doing nothing. For the past five years, that's been the fastest-growing category of youth activity: a [youth] doing nothing, not playing any sport. That's bad for our culture, that's bad for our society over the long haul. So I think we each have to take our little piece of the obligation and try to move this effort forward."

Hannah Storm of ESPN moderated the evening. Manfred was on the "Path to Success" panel along with Brady, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, ESPN pioneering baseball game analyst Jessica Mendoza, and ESPN president John Skipper.

That followed a "Breaking Down Barriers" panel discussion featuring Williams, winner of 21 grand slam titles in women's tennis; Franklin, currently training for the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro; PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem; and Mark King, president of adidas Group North America.

"We've seen a lot of traction in a relatively short period of time with respect to our youth programs," Manfred said. "In the first round of our Draft last year, 25 percent of the players selected were African-American, and a very large portion of those were players who had some connection to one of our Urban Youth Academies. Baseball has always felt a special obligation because of the legacy of Jackie Robinson to promote diversity and in a relatively short period of time our Major League rosters are only 8 percent. So the difference between 8 percent and 25 percent is a big jump for us.

"We also saw at a grassroots level our participation numbers went up last year for the first time in a number of years, and a lot of it's due to this Play Ball initiative. Kids can play baseball without nine kids in uniform on each team, an umpire and screaming parents. The idea of Play Ball is to get back to that simpler way, which is the way we really played as kids."

Since 2014, Dick's has pledged more than $50 million to support high school teams and raise awareness of the importance of youth sports, and the Sports Matter event is an offshoot of that. Sports Matter has funded more than 1,500 sports teams and impacted more than 114,000 youths nationwide.

Many of the speakers talked about the role sports played in their own development as youths.

"Being an African-American girl in tennis wasn't super popular," Williams said. "I had to break down so many barriers, because of so many things that weren't supposed to happen. . . . Sports can make a huge difference. It can open doors for you and teaches you so many core values. It creates character, discipline, hard work and dedication."

"I don't know anything other than sports, because it was there for me as a child," Brady said. "It sets such a great foundation for our life."

Storm asked Manfred about his own Little League days in the upstate New York village of Rome, and he noted that he is the first MLB Commissioner who played it. Since succeeding Bud Selig in the position, Manfred's early playing days have been a steady topic raised by others.

"All of a sudden I started hearing from these people that I hadn't heard from or thought about in decades. Team photos, letters, "Did you remember this? Did you remember that?' " Manfred said. "You realize that sports teaches you about teamwork. And when you have an athletic experience, even when you are 11 or 12 years old, with a group of people, it creates a bond. That bond, and that process of learning to work together to accomplish a goal is something that I think is absolutely crucial to being a leader in whatever situation you find yourself.

"We played everything. I played tennis all the way through college, I played a lot of golf as a kid, played a lot of basketball, and those athletic experiences to me taught me the values that have helped groom me for success."

Jon Gruden, the ESPN football analyst who coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl XXXVII title, was presented with the first Sports Matter Impact Award.

DonorsChoose.org has a section dedicated to specific "Team Sports" that need funding, and once each program is funded 50 percent, Dick's Foundation donates the other half.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.