April 15, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) Serena Williams knows firsthand the dangers of underfinanced youth sports across the nation.

When she joins a panel discussion Tuesday with such other high-powered sports figures as Jon Gruden, Tom Brady, Missy Franklin, Jessica Mendoza, Rob Manfred, Tim Finchem, among others, Williams says she will be eager to tackle the problem that has led to hefty budget cuts and decreased participation by youngsters in America.

''You didn't see a lot of girls playing tennis in Compton (California), but thankfully my parents made sure we had the opportunity to compete,'' says Williams, who will participate on the Sports Matter panel hosted by The DICK'S Sporting Goods Foundation. The foundation is making a multimillion dollar commitment to increase awareness of the youth sports funding crisis.

''Unfortunately, there are sports that are not as accessible to kids from all walks of life, and it's important to people like my sister (Venus) and me to take steps to change that. It's not cheap to travel to tournaments, buy equipment or pay for lessons. But with help from initiatives like Sports Matter, we can hopefully change that and provide kids with ways to stay active, while also give them an opportunity to improve as people.''

The panel will convene at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, where the sports documentary ''Keepers of the Game'' will premiere. The film tells the story of the Salmon River (Fort Covington, New York) women's lacrosse team both on the field and in the community. The film will make its television debut on ABC on the afternoon of April 23.

That all-Native American squad seeks to become the first such women's team to win a section championship.

''As a female athlete, it is important to me to see women treated fairly in the sports world,'' Williams adds, ''and I like to see films like `Keepers of the Game' that address the issue of providing equal opportunities for girls. I believe in the power of sports to make a huge difference and break down barriers.''

So does Gruden, who has actively campaigned the last few years to reverse the troubling trend of significant cuts in youth sports funding. He cites studies that show reductions that disproportionately impact students in low income areas; students from low-income families who are four times more likely to decrease participation in sports due to costs; and sports participation rates among youths living in households with the lowest incomes being about half that of youths from wealthier homes.

A study by Up2Us Sports, a New York-based non-profit, estimates that 27 percent of U.S. public high schools will not have any sports by 2020.

''I have talked to coaches who are struggling with budget issues all over the country, and it's a big problem,'' Gruden says. ''These are great people trying to help young athletes excel on and off the field. We need more support for programs like Sports Matter so we can turn this ship around and start funding school sports properly.

''I have been fired up about Sports Matter since Day 1 and want to continue to raise my voice about this being a big issue,'' he said. ''There is a lot to be done, and we need to keep grinding to help as many kids as we can have an opportunity to play.''

MLB Commissioner Manfred recognizes how a lack of funding for kids baseball can impact his sport. Yes, our national pastime needs some help on the youth level.

''One of my top priorities as commissioner of baseball is youth participation,'' Manfred says. ''We have focused our efforts on programs under our PLAY BALL umbrella, which is aimed at increasing opportunities for kids to play the game, particularly in underserved areas.

''Playing the game as a child is important as it teaches great life lessons and is crucial in the development of being a lifelong fan,'' Manfred added.

Through PLAY BALL, major league teams conduct clinics, stage games and build or refurbish fields.

Through Sports Matter, DICK'S already has committed $25 million to combating underfunding. Two years ago, DICK'S foundation first partnered with Tribeca Digital Studios and director Judd Ehrlich to produce the Sports Emmy Award-winning documentary ''We Could Be King.'' That film focused on the repercussions of budget cuts to two Philadelphia area school districts' athletic programs.

By gathering the likes of Williams, Brady, Gruden, Franklin, Mendoza, the commissioners of MLB and the PGA Tour, and other major industry leaders, DICK'S Chief Executive Officer Ed Stack hopes the message will come through even louder, and will make even more impact.

''We have a big issue in America,'' Stack says. ''Youth sports budgets have been cut by billions, and many kids can't afford to play. It's so important to these kids to have a place to go and a place to belong, and sports give them that opportunity.

''Sports were everything to me as a kid. That's where I developed lifelong friendships, and we all learned teamwork, camaraderie, how to win, how to lose, and to be gracious in either scenario,'' he said. ''I can't imagine where my life would have ended up without sports.''

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