WASHINGTON –  “Imagine you’re in the red zone, and you’re in the fourth quarter and you’ve got to score a touchdown. Or there’s a person on second base in the ninth inning and you’ve got to get that person in. Or you’re sitting over a three-foot putt on the 18th green and you’ve got to win…”

“That’s kind of where we are here.”

Jim Baugh, former president of Wilson Sporting Goods, knew just the right language for the pep talk he was delivering to a group of athletes and sports industry executives. He was pumping them up for a day of lobbying to push for federal funding to get America back in shape.

With obesity a growing public health problem, the health and fitness groups want to convince lawmakers that even in the midst of a national debt crisis,  funding for physical education should be on  Congress’ priority list.

“It’s right for not just us [manufacturers], it’s right for America,” said Baugh. “It’s right to reduce health care costs for our country.”

Baugh joined the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association as the organization hosted its 13th annual National Health Through Fitness day on  March 7, unleashing  more than 100 people to meet with members of Congress to push for legislation that will help Americans adopt more physically active and healthy lifestyles.

This year’s agenda: action on the Carol M. White Physical Education Program that provides grants to school districts for innovative physical education methods and the proposed  Personal Health Investment Today Act to provide tax incentives to make health-related activities more affordable. SGMA’s 100 volunteer lobbyists will be fanning out across Capitol Hill to ask for continued funding at the current level of $78 million a year for PEP and passage of PHIT.

“We have an obesity problem…it’s embarrassing,” said SGMA President Tom Cove. “What’s positive is that when we focus on addressing a very complicated health problem, we have made success in this country.”


A growing problem

More than 50 percent of American adults don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Approximately 120 million Americans are overweight, obese or physically inactive.

“We need to do things differently, we need to get people to value activity,” said Bill Sells, vice president of government relations for the SGMA.

“Preventable chronic diseases related to obesity are the reason our health care costs are rising so fast. If we can get the obesity problem under control, we can get the health care problem under control.”

Although obesity is a significant problem, it is not an irreversible one. All it takes to find the solution, according to Cove, is commitment.

“We put our minds to it, we put research into it, public policy…we change behavior and we actually make a difference,” Cove said. “We have got to commit the same way we do to cardiovascular [disease], to cancer, to vehicular death.”

“When you put seatbelts on people, it saves lives. Physical education, for kids, saves lives.”


PEP talk to get PHIT

Funding for physical education and fitness programs are the focus of PEP and PHIT, the two bills being pushed by SGMA and its partners.

Research has proven that having “P.E.” as part of the school day gets kids active in other activities – including their studies. After review of 50 different studies, the Centers for Disease Control concluded that higher activity levels meant higher academic performance.

In addition, kids taking P.E. during the day are three to four times more active outside of school.

“You want to figure out how to get kids active? Get ‘em in P.E.!” said Baugh. “A lot of people talk about afterschool programs and recess – NO! We’ve got to make sure every kid has the chance to learn how to be physically active, just like they learn to read, write and everything else in their normal academic schedules.”

Since its passage in 2000, PEP has distributed $800 million to schools across America, but  only 10 percent of applicants have received a grant.

PHIT has received little support in Congress due to the nature of what it requests: tax incentives, covering any expense directly related to physical activity. This could mean anything from joining a health club to paying a child’s Little League fees.

“Every member of Congress – every congressman, congresswoman, every staffer…will agree that physical activity is good and will improve health, they all will agree,” said Sells. “They may say we can’t afford it. In reality, we can’t afford not to support PHIT.”

“We can’t afford to keep doing what we’re doing, because what we’re doing is setting us in the wrong direction.”


A history of success

When a group of sports industry power players wrote the PEP bill in 1999, they realized the severity of the problem they were trying to solve – and the need to garner more support than they could get by themselves.

“We needed to do something about physical education in this country,” said Tom Cove. “So we started an event around [PEP] to promote that.”

The first lobbying day – called National Health Through Fitness day — had a grand total of five attendees. Jim Baugh was one of them.

The annual event has grown to include colleagues from throughout the sports industry: manufacturers, retailers, PE teachers, association leaders and other ‘friends of the industry.”

“We’re particularly proud that this is not just a sporting goods industry event,” Cove said. “We now have a much broader organization that supports the effort.”


“Now they’re the fan”

Former NFL players Ken Harvey and John Booty, each the recipient of a SGMA Lifetime Achievement Award for his promotion of active lifestyles, showed up to lobby. They were joined by a handful of other sports celebrities, professional athletes from the NFL to the WNBA to the PGA, each of whom was paired with industry representatives to walk the halls of Congress.

First-time participant Steve Smith, wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, said he chose to take part because he wants to help kids like his own develop healthy habits early on.

“These bills give kids opportunities to break a vicious cycle,” said Smith. “We should all be concerned with the future, because we have to spend the rest of our lives in it.”

At a breakfast briefing before the day began, participants were advised to let members of Congress interact with the celebrities.

“Members accepted these meetings because they wanted to meet the athletes,” said Sells. “Most of the time when you have a meeting with a member of Congress, they’re the rock star in the room. Now they’re the fan.”

However, Sells cautioned everyone not to let that get in the way of the message.

“Members are fully aware of what our message is – the only problem we have to make sure is we have a chance to deliver it.”

Sells warned  group members that they would be met with skepticism given Congress’ biggest concern: the deficit.

“You want to make them realize, this is about reducing spending,” he said. “We’re to help you cut spending congressman, we’re here to help you cut spending senator, because we have a solution that will reduce spending on health care costs.”

Cove, the SGMA president, drove the point home before sending the rookie lobbyists off to the Hill.

“We have challenges every year. We have challenges this year. But we believe that we are as well-situated as we possibly could be, and again, it’s all about creating active America.”