WASHINGTON -- About a dozen players from the Howard County TERPS 10U football team ran around Rayburn Lobby at the House of Representatives on Tuesday morning, their red, yellow and black jerseys darting around members of Congress and visitors as the players tossed footballs and swung plastic mini golf clubs.
Earlier that morning, the team sat in the seats of the Ways and Means Committee in Room 2020, a vast change from the suit-and tie-wearing politicians normally behind the microphones.
The team wasn't there to wreak havoc on politicians but was instead present for the National Youth Sports Day hearing and expo, a joint effort by the National Council of Youth Sports and the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports intended t0 start a dialogue around youth sports and the NCYS's policy platform.
The main message: youth sports needs to be accessible to all children and prioritized by the federal and state governments and by coaches.
Youth sports are one of our most valuable assets and teaching tools, implored Clay Walker, the National Fitness Foundation executive director. He emphasized the need for persons at both the state and federal level to make youth sports a top priority. Walker added to four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon's message that right now, the most critical issues lawmakers face are those concerning today's youth.
For Boldon, who has served as the lead track and field analyst for NBC Sports' coverage of the Summer Olympics since 2007, his achievements in sports served as a "catalyst" for other opportunities, opportunities that he, and other panelists, said need to be accessible to everyone.
A rising sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Nora Fairbanks-Lee was the youngest member of the panel. She explained how playing basketball and softball have helped her develop into a more confident person.
"Sports teaches unforgettable life lessons," Fairbanks-Lee said, adding that sports provide a safe space for children in the community to work through their problems.
The final message of the main hearing came from Charles Elliot, who said that coaches "have to begin to invest in kids [and] put time in." Elliot, the president of the Maryland Football and Cheer Association, and former football coach, demonstrated the innate power coaches hold over children by blowing a whistle, at which point every Terps player jumped to their feet ready to go.
"Whatever coach says, that's what goes," Elliot explained. He argued that coaches should strive to be mentors and turn players into better human beings, not simply into better athletes.
Elliot's argument carried back to the necessary prioritizing of youth sports and the purpose of the conference as a whole: to greate that dialogue which continues to promote safe, healthy and accessible play for all children.
After the hearing, those in attendance retired to the lobby, where various organizations set up tables and some games to allow both Congressional staff and the children in attendance to play and learn about each organization.
Though only a few staffers and representatives participated in the activities, including a carpet golf set from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and inflatable basketball hoops from Monumental Sports, those few children filled the air with giggles as they frolicked amongst politicians and event organizers.
Three Congress members-- Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Rep. Marc Veasey (D-TX)--spoke over the course of the day about the positive impact of youth sports on their own lives.
Both Armstrong and Davis coached little league baseball, which they discussed at the beginning of the hearing; Armstrong was elected to the North Dakota Dickinson Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017, while Davis remembed when he found out he was nominated to the caucus while he was coaching a little league game (he waited until after the game to address reporters, showing his players they were his priority in that moment).
Davis and Veasey are two of the three co-chairs of the caucus, and Vesey made sure to address specifically the children in the room.
"Comfortable is the most dangerous word in sports," Boldon explained during the hearing. He tells all his athletes that phrase to warn against complacency in training. But that same saying holds true to the panelists' feelings toward the current state of youth sports in America.
"We've made progress," Trish Sylvia, co-founder of the National Center for Safety Initiatives said. "But there's more to be done."