As budgets tighten in public schools across the country, youth sports are feeling the pain. Between 2009 to 2011, $3.5 billion was cut from schools' sports budgets, and an estimated 27 percent of U.S. public high schools will not have any sports by the year 2020 if the current trends continue (Tweet This), according to Up2US, a nonprofit for sports-based youth development.
It has become "apparent that youth sports are in crisis," said Lauren Hobart, chief marketing officer at athletic equipment retailer Dick's Sporting Goods.
To combat the trend, Dick's Sporting Goods announced on Tuesday that it's partnering with crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.org to help schools seeking money for their school sports programs. The company has made a $25 million, multiyear commitment to help programs facing budget shortfalls.
The goal is to get kids playing sports again, transform their lives and teach them lessons that they will carry long after leaving the playing field.
"Football and sports saved my life," said Brandon Marshall, wide receiver for the New York Jets. The five-time Pro Bowler said that youth sports gave him a chance to succeed when times were tough growing up in Central Florida. "Sometimes I got lost, and for me it was my only way out."
Marshall's career has since taken him from Denver to Miami and Chicago and now New York, and Marshall said the skills he learned from youth sports have helped him today.
"Sports is a universal language," Marshall said. "It breaks down so many barriers."
For Karl-Anthony Towns, the NBA's top draft pick, sports gave him a ticket to college. The Piscataway, New Jersey, native was devastated as a child to learn his parents could not afford to send him to college.
"Sports was the only way I was going to get an education," he said.
Towns earned a 3.96 GPA and got a full basketball scholarship to the University of Kentucky. He left for the Minnesota Timberwolves of the National Basketball Association after his freshman season and, according a New York Times article in June, signed up for online courses at Kentucky to continue working toward his degree.
"I learned initiative and how to get the job done," he said of sports.
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For others, it was about learning life lessons that apply far beyond the bounds of sports.
"For me, youth sports laid the foundation of my professional career," said Carli Lloyd, midfielder for the U.S. Women's National team that won the 2015 FIFA World Cup. The two-time Olympic Gold medalist said she learned the value of hard work and to respect teammates and coaches. "Sports give such a wide range of things that can help in the long term."
Student athletes are four times more likely to attend college and have 40 percent higher test scores, according Up2Us. The organization's CEO and founder, Paul Caccamo, has dedicated his life to using sports to teach essential values and skills to high-risk youth.
"Sports is really character development," Caccamo said.