PE Day lobbying puts fitness on legislative forefront

A small army of athletes, manufacturers and retailers (plus SNEWS) climbed up to Capitol Hill on May 5 to stress the importance of fitness and school PE to the government, making a splash with kids bouncing balls at a press conference before breaking into groups and heading off to a day of more than 100 meetings with individual legislators.
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A small army of athletes, manufacturers and retailers (plus SNEWS®) climbed up to Capitol Hill on May 5 to stress the importance of fitness and school PE to the government, making a splash with kids bouncing balls at a press conference before breaking into groups and heading off to a day of more than 100 meetings with individual legislators.

The fourth-annual National PE Day was one of industry education, lobbying and marching the marble halls and construction-ripped streets to meet with representatives and senators -- and, if you will, rabble-rousing for the cause. In this case, the cause was asking legislators to back another jump in funding for the Carol M. White Physical Education for Progress bill (PEP). Both PEP and PE Day are events put on by the non-profit PE4Life organization (www.pe4life.org), which was founded a few years ago by former Wilson President Jim Baugh. National PE Day is organized by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA).

"With this we can revolutionize society," Baugh told SNEWS®. "If our bodies aren't active, our minds aren't going to work. Our health care system needs (PE). Our government needs it. Our military needs it.

"The key here is to think about someone keeping active for life and that's about conditioning them early on," he said, about the reason for the push for PE.

Attendees represented a broad slice of the sporting goods, fitness, education and health care industries, including executives from New Balance, Russell Corp., Icon Health & Fitness, Reebok, Polar Electro, Galyan's, The Sports Authority, Strive Smart Strength, Accusplit, Nike and Everlast. Athletes included Olympic gold-medalist sprinter Carl Lewis (see SNEWS Fitness Did You Hears dated May 4 for our chance chat with Lewis), Wimbledon champ Billie Jean King (who showed up for the early-morning briefings and sat among everybody else), climber Tori Allen, six-time Ms. Olympia Cory Everson, and NFL Hall of Famer Herschel Walker, who impressed everyone with his articulate presentation at the mid-morning press conference.

"I think that a blitz is the best way to do this, since everyone focuses on a subject that day and many people see the 'buzz,'" commented Accusplit President Ron Sutton, who attended such an event for the first time.

Lobbying events such as National PE Day (like IHRSA's Legislative Summit coming up May 19-20) are not only about advocacy for a cause but also educating participants about the government process and the difference they can make.

PE Day started with a two-hour briefing session about PE4Life, its background, the money it's received, the grants it then gives, how the grants are dispersed and used, and what to tell legislators in a nutshell (since they're always in a hurry). Participants are given detailed schedules of pre-arranged meetings with legislators, packets with graphics showing economic impact and other back-up data that is hoped to convince someone about the cause, and a map. Then you and your group (usually by state) are told to shove-off -- and off you go to the Hill, in and out of security, with map in hand, weaving through the halls, trying to find an office number.

"You hit them hard, and you hit them broad," said Tom Cove, SGMA vice president of government affairs and the group's future president, nearly leaping onto the tables and bouncing off the walls at the morning briefing in his typical energetic and passionate manner, and calling it "outrageous" if a legislator says we don't have the money. "Outrageous?!? It's the cost to society that's outrageous!

"We want kids to live long, happy, healthy, active, well-balanced lives," Cove said. "Active kids are more likely to become active adults."

The goal this year for PE Day was to ask legislators to consider increasing the amount that PE4Life gets to $100 million, from this year's $70 million. The education that participants bestowed upon legislators was that this is not about gaining funding for the dreadful physical education classes many of them (and us) knew -- no endless games of baseball, unattended running, forced swimming in over-chlorinated pools, or learning silly ball-bouncing gymnastics that, of course, NEVER would translate into lifetime activity.

Today's PE and the programs supported by these grants can be about anything from mountain biking, weight-training, rock climbing, heart-rate monitoring, fitness walking with pedometers, aerobics classes, or even skiing -- all of which can teach enjoyment of movement and recreational activities.

"We're having problems getting people active at an older level," said John Salvitti, president of Pennsylvania-based Strive Smart Strength. "Those habits need to be instilled at an early age. If they are, they will become future health club members and exercisers. They are our future customers.

"I believe this is about more than strength-training equipment and cardiovascular equipment," he added.

Baugh also looked around at the lack of attendance by clubs and many in the fitness industry: "The Life Fitnesses, Ballys, Cybexes and Precors have to realize that a kid who is not active will not stay active as an adult."

At the pre-lobbying and post-morning briefing press conference and photo op, PE4Life unveiled a 10-step action plan, which association President Anne Flannery said will help make children healthier through quality, daily physical education programs and increased physical education. The plan includes calling for increased accountability of PE programs, national standards for testing, research that quantifies the cost of physical inactivity, incorporating PE into a student's GPA, and making the transition to "lifestyle" PE programs.

Historically, Congress has gradually offered more support for PEP, approving $70 million for this year, an increase from $60 million in 2003, $50 million in 2002, and $5 million in 2001, when the program was created. In 2001, 18 grants were given, 176 in 2002, and more than 200 local school districts and community-based organizations received PEP grants in 2003.

The concern by PE and fitness supporters is that budget constraints, security issues and the conflict in Iraq may threaten funding for programs such as PEP.

"We're just trying," Cove said, "to change the country's perspective on what we should be doing for kids."

SNEWS® View: We think that because the event is called PE Day, there seems to be a misconception that the lobbying has nothing to do with fitness but is more about team sports and all that grunt PE stuff we as adults remember -- not-so-fondly in most cases. That's so wrong and so short-sighted. A company and retailer must think long term to see the benefit. If we lobby for more PE and better PE with lifestyle programming, such as programs these grants support, then more kids will get active and like it. We all know that an active kid is more likely to become an active adult. And that active adult is the one who will join clubs, buy treadmills, take up a running or walking program, go hiking, or make space for a home gym in their house. We loved the fact that Strive made the effort to show up -- that's foresight on the strength company's part. Now if only we could get a few others to make the trek to the Hill. If nothing else, we can only hope others will participate in IHRSA's lobbying day. IHRSA has additional agendas that have to do with financial benefits for clubs, but it also speaks up for PE in schools. We at SNEWS® have taken part in spring lobbying events for years, and they are always educational, eye-opening and definitely worth the time.

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