In the midst of increasing corporatization and politicization of sports in the US, declining participation in youth sports and increased bullying and violence in US schools, New-Jersey-based founder and co-author Bob Salomon is side-stepping all the noise by taking his hit children’s book Beyond The Laces’ simple but powerful message of kindness and perseverance on and off the sports field to the future’s best source of hope – the hearts of kids.
The World Health Organisation claims violence among youths is a global public health problem. Every day, an estimated 227 children and youths (age 0–19 years) die worldwide as a result of interpersonal violence. For each death, many more are hospitalized with injuries. Poor social skills, low academic achievement, impulsiveness, truancy and poverty are among contributing factors to this violence.
If we shift our focus to the United States, according to multiple reports, by May 2018, there were 23 school shootings where someone was hurt or killed. This is an average of more than one shooting per week.
The US National Center for Education Statistics reported that out of an estimated total students of 24.5 million aged between 12-18 years old, 20.8 million kids reported being bullied at school in the 2014-15 school year.
A 2017 report by Diliberti et al ‘Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety in U.S. Public Schools’ sponsored by the US Department of Education, claims that among factors that were reported to limit schools’ efforts to reduce or prevent crime “in a major way,” three factors were more likely to be reported than others: lack of alternative placements or programs for disruptive students (30 percent); inadequate funding (28 percent); and federal, state, or district policies on disciplining special education students (17 percent).
Higher percentages of schools located in suburbs (74 percent) and cities (73 percent) reported they had a formal program intended to prevent or reduce violence that included social emotional learning training for students than did schools located in towns (62 percent) and rural areas (51 percent). Interestingly, the highest percentage of school shootings were in regional areas.
Aside from enrichment and/or formal social programs being rolled out across schools as a perfunctory way to tackle youth violence, there appears to be plenty of data that suggests a definitive correlation between regular youth participation in sports and the reduction of childhood aggression and increased emotional self-control.
While youth sports are proven to help combat youth violence, according to the US Aspen Institute Report ‘State of Play Trends and Developments 2017’, the number of kids playing sports keeps decreasing. The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program claims only 36.9 percent of children ages 6-12 played team sports on a regular basis in 2016 – down from 38.6 in 2015 and 44.5 in 2008. In addition, only 24.8 percent of kids aged 6-12 years old were considered active to a healthy level in 2016, marking the steepest one-year decline on record dating to 2008.
The Aspen Report also highlighted that household income continues to be a major inhibitor to sports participation. In 2016, 29.9 percent of kids from homes in the lowest income bracket ($25,000 or less) were physically inactive. Only 11.5 percent of children in the wealthiest households ($100,000 or more) were physically inactive.
It appears that neighborhood sports died with Generation X too. The extent of kids playing with kids down the street has shifted. According to a household survey of 22 counties in Western New York (Greater Buffalo, Rochester and the Finger Lakes) and Southeast Michigan (Detroit and surrounding areas) the Aspen Report found that fewer than one in five kids now play football near their home, one in 10 for basketball and less than one in 20 for baseball and soccer.
In September 2017, Time Magazine ran an op-ed ‘How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry’ by Sports Journalist Sean Gregory who argued that the corporatization of youth sports makes participation virtually impossible for low-income families and with the added pressure to compete in a privatized model rather than community-mindedness or ‘for the love of it’ has resulted in a substantial drop in local league participation:
“Neighborhood Little Leagues, town soccer associations and church basketball squads that bonded kids in a community–and didn’t cost as much as a rent check–have largely lost their luster. Little League participation, for example, is down 20% from its turn-of-the-century peak. These local leagues have been nudged aside by private club teams, a loosely governed constellation that includes everything from development academies affiliated with professional sports franchises to regional squads run by moonlighting coaches with little experience…But as community-based teams give way to a more mercenary approach, it’s worth asking what’s lost in the process. Already, there are worrying signs. A growing body of research shows that intense early specialization in a single sport increases the risk of injury, burnout and depression. Fees and travel costs are pricing out lower-income families. Some kids who don’t show talent at a young age are discouraged from ever participating in organized sports,” says Gregory.
While the problem of youth violence and declining sports participation as a way to combat it appear to be trapped in a downward spiral of discouragement, we were fortunate to stumble across a group of New-Jersey guys from diverse backgrounds, who have managed to “sidestep the politics and play-to-profit mentality” as the large-than-life founder of Beyond The Laces Movement Bob Salomon puts it, by going straight to the kids with a children’s book that started it all, Beyond the Laces.
“Beyond The Laces is a story of hope. Every week we are welcomed into schools to share the Movement and the book’s message of kindness. We want kids to know that there are adults who care about them. The hero of the story, Number 87 is a star Wide Receiver that inspires kindness and encourages kids to never give up. The kids and teachers embrace the message because we engage them with humour and sincerity. They love it because we speak from the heart, just like kids do…We work on their level and make sure they have fun and feel valued and we feel incredibly blessed to see how much positivity we all get from our author visits,” says Salomon.
Salomon says his journey in putting Beyond The Laces together was four years in the making. With no budget, thousands of call-outs around the world and false starts, Salomon says because his mission was not about making money, it was crucial to find the same-minded people who believed in the message of kindness and the mission to make a positive difference for others.
“We joke that we are the original Jersey Boys! We’re a bunch of six guys, all from very different backgrounds. After trying to find partners from around the world my team all ended up only being an hour’s drive apart! My Co-author Rick Young, the Illustrator Ken Jones, the business development guys Matt Gallaro, Mark Brislin, James Crosby, and our printer Charles Ambrogio… These guys all provide a huge fountain of ideas and they truly want to make a difference. When I looked for an Illustrator, I went to art colleges, but their professors all told the kids don’t take any jobs unless you get money! Then God put Ken in my path! A graphic designer from New Jersey who had illustrated for tons of sports magazines including Sports Collectors Digest, Inside Pitch Magazine, Diehard Magazine etc. I am indebted to Charles Ambrogio from CMYK Printing. I called hundreds of people to help me. I had a publishing deal and it went bad. I felt so defeated. Then one night I was contemplating throwing in the towel, I decided to make one last call. I spoke to Charles and told him my book was going to change the world. He said he wanted to meet me. Charles funded the first print-run of 5,000 books and all the marketing material. Rick Young, our Co-Author is the main reason the book is touching so many hearts across the US. When I spoke to him I knew he was the one. When we do our author visits he engages the audience on the entire writing process from concept to publication,” says Salomon.
James Crosby was an orphan from South Korea and was adopted by a “loving family” in New Jersey when he was five months old. His adoption saw him become the fourth generation to contribute to his family oil business. After graduating from Rutgers University with a BA in Economics, Crosby considered Wall Street before he pivoted to entrepreneurship, launching a successful mid-market luxury men’s accessories and apparel business Crosby & Co. He then branched into property development and became heavily involved in philanthropy – all under the age of 30.
“When we see how much damage putting profit before kids is doing to youth sports and our schools in the US, it’s so refreshing to be a part of the Beyond The Laces Movement. Helping Bob and the team to provide guidance and to share in the positive character development of our nation’s youth is a huge privilege,” says Crosby.
According to Salomon, to make an impact, the team is everything. We asked Salomon about what a good change leader needs to do to get people to buy into their vision.
“The only way you can bring about change is to surround yourself with people who share the same values. Unfortunately, our society has lost what it means to live together. It’s all me, me, me. Everyone is living for ‘The Stuff’. That’s our term for material things. The desire for it is destroying everything. It’s important to inspire your team through action, not words. Touch one life at a time. Business comes second. When you have pain in your heart, you can’t waste time focusing on that. You must focus on helping others. When you’re a leader, your job is to unite people. Change needs love in action. The hardest thing about this journey is getting people to focus on something other than making money. It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about glorifying goodness. If I go into a room and see darkness the only way to change it is with light. Embrace the guy who won’t give you a deal. Show kindness to the lady who is giving you a hard time,” says Salomon.
After spending 25 years working as a Corrections Officer Salomon ‘retired’ at 45 years old. Now at 51, Salomon works with youths-at-risk when he’s not on the road spreading the message of Beyond the Laces in schools.
“Some people ask me whether my time working at the prison or my years with youth sports has to do with my work today. Maybe. I’ve been with people who are going through bad stuff and it gave me insight – absent parents, substance abuse, selfishness, parents having babies who put drunkenness and drugs before the child. So the kid has to fend for themselves…I saw this scenario a lot in prison – how the cycle repeats itself over and over. It added to my understanding in being able to help youth-at-risk. The work I do is not about writing reports. My experiences have taught me that in order to make real transformation, you’ve got to lead with love and care. When a kid feels that there is an open door to possibly make change, they will walk through it,” says Salomon.
After successfully engaging many professional athletes in the US to promote The Beyond the Laces Movement, we asked Salomon why his children’s book is making such a huge impact on the lives of kids and adults alike and why he thinks so many sportspeople are getting behind his work?
“I think everyone can relate to the book regardless of their background. I talk about leading with kindness and our goal is to inspire this in the children through our author visits. When we go into the schools, kindness starts from when we enter the school gate. We don’t talk at the kids. We make it all about them. We give the kids real life examples that they can relate to and we give away prizes and books and we just have a lot of fun with it,” says Salomon.
While the Beyond the Laces team is touching kids’ hearts across America, we asked Salomon if he could encapsulate his journey for adults who might need inspiration to start their work day too.
“If you are blessed with success, everyone will want a piece of you. However, the hype may pull you away from your purpose. If you have been blessed with a platform, you’ve got to make it about serving others. That’s my whole story. That’s what Beyond the Laces is about. Care about each other, even strangers. Never give up, especially if it’s a righteous matter; you can’t give up, you have to get through any obstacle. Success is not measured in dollars and cents. True success is kindness in action,” says Salomon.
(Image features LHS James Crosby and RH Bob Salomon. Image courtesy of Beyond The Laces).