NYC Trying To Use Sports To Curb Violence

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Can sports stop violent crime?

Well, it might. Some folks argue that part of what leads to violent crime is a lack of things for young people to do. It’s not that people get bored so they decide to knock over a liquor store so much as giving young people something to do keeps them from interacting with the bad elements that would influence them to knock over that liquor store.

In New York City, they’re trying that approach and they’re using sports to do it.

Emily Campos has always had a knack for sports. But after her spinal surgery, she had to pivot from her original athletic love, basketball, to soccer. In 2015, as a teenage newbie to the beautiful game, she entered a program in East Harlem, where she was the only girl. “They were a little mean at first!” Campos recalls of the other boys—but it made no difference: “I went from being this player that had no idea how to kick a ball around, to being one of the top scorers in the league.” The program that she came up in, City in the Community, was led by coaches of New York City FC, the MLS team that’s attracted the talents of world stars such as Frank Lampard and David Villa.

It was only later during her tenure that Campos realized that the program was part of a wider initiative run by Manhattan’s chief prosecutor, in an effort to drive down gun violence in the city.

That initiative is SNL—no, not that one—Saturday Night Lights, established by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 2010 as a “gun violence prevention strategy.” Now active in 20 locations in high-risk neighborhoods in all five boroughs, it welcomes school-aged children to participate in organized sports on Saturday nights and beyond, in an effort to keep them busy during high-crime times and to engage them in leadership and team-building skills. During the pandemic, the program mostly went virtual, centering around online skills sessions and guest talks from athletes. But now, as gun violence has soared in New York, reflecting surging rates across the country, the mayor’s office will assume responsibility for the program, with new investment, and a plan to expand to 100 locations by July. As it scales up, it’ll keep the core tenets it’s always had: Saturday night offerings in vulnerable areas, high-quality coaching, and the committed involvement of New York’s police department and prosecutors.

The big question is, will it work? Well, maybe.

It’s important to keep in mind that New York City was actually one of the safer large cities in the nation for some time, and this program isn’t new. It’s been around since 2010 and does more than just sports. It also provides academic help to struggling students who are part of the program. Educating kids gives them options besides gang-banging and other criminal activities.

With a focus on high-quality coaching, some of these kids might land college scholarships that may help some get out of poverty, which will also help with violence.

Even if it doesn’t, giving kids an outlet like this is probably a good thing.

For me, I’m willing to support just about anything that tries to address violence without restricting people’s Second Amendment rights. New York City already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation and has had them for more than a century. There’s nothing more they can really take within the city, so that’s forced them to look at alternatives, and this seems like a good option.

The important thing to remember, though, is that a sports program isn’t going to do it all. Yet it has promise as part of an overall approach to violent crime.

If it works, you don’t need gun control. It’s just too bad New York City won’t see it that way.