LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Former President Bill Clinton was a better musician than an athlete growing up. The future leader of the free world says he was better at a lot of things, actually. But all these years later, Clinton says some of his fondest childhood memories took place on a basketball court or whatever field he and his friends could find to start up a game of touch football.
"You don't have to be great at something to be competitive at it," Clinton said Monday night during a discussion with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant at the opening of the third annual Clinton Health Matters Conference on kids and sports at the La Quinta Resort.
"I still remember the only church league basketball game that I was the leading scorer. I was 16 years old and I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember the basket I made to be the leading scorer. You may think that's silly, like this guy's been president and he's thinking about a basketball game ... it was one of those magical nights. I might as well have won the NBA championship."
That drew a chuckle from Bryant, who has won five NBA titles, but obviously appreciated hearing about Clinton's competitive streak.
"There's a lot of people out there who don't believe in having healthy competition," Bryant said. "I think we have to make it enjoyable and for kids to understand that there's a certain spirit of competition that's fun. It's not nasty, it's not aggressive, it's just fun competition, and I think when you have that kids will go out and enjoy themselves. They'll pick up their activity instead of just plopping down in front of the TV."
According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, children ages 8 to 18 spend more than 7½ hours a day in front of a screen (a television, computer or playing video games). It's a staggering figure that's contributed to the United States having one of the highest child obesity rates in the world. A 2012 American Medical Association study found that obesity in children ages 6 to 11 has doubled in the past 30 years. Among adolescents ages 12 to 19, it has tripled.
"This may be the least active generation of young people in history," Clinton said. "The problem is that this can have lasting, damaging effects on all of them and actually wind up shortening their life expectancy. So we're doing this because there are simple solutions to this problem that will pay massive dividends."
Bryant and Clinton discussed the causes of the epidemic as well as ideas and solutions to tackle the problem. Their discussion was moderated by Mike Greenberg, host of ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike," and will be broadcast on Feb. 9 on ESPN2, along with interviews conducted by Olympian and ESPN soccer analyst Julie Foudy, and a panel discussion involving Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix, Olympian and former NFL star Herschel Walker and United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun that was moderated by Aspen Institute Sports and Society director and ESPN contributor Tom Farrey.
The panel discussed several issues, including inequitable access to sports across socioeconomic classes, strategies to make sports and fitness relevant and fun for a generation of kids with more entertainment choices than ever before, and the increasing specialization and professionalization of youth sports that often leads to early burnout and saps the joy from competition.
"I think we've been so focused on sports, we forgot about just playing," said Felix, who has recently recovered from a torn hamstring and is training for a comeback this spring. "Too many times, we get this pressure to specialize too early. I started running track in ninth grade. I think it's a misconception that you have to start early and go to the Olympic training center and you have to spend all this money. I have friends who went down that road and at the end of high school, they were just burnt out."
Kemp spoke of playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic in 2006 and seeing kids playing baseball late into the night, having the time of their lives, and how that reminded him of his childhood, playing with other kids in the neighborhood well after dark, until his mom finally made him come inside.
Walker told of how sports helped to transform him from an overweight kid with a speech impediment into one of the greatest athletes of his generation.
"What changed my life is, at the end of the eighth grade, I ended up getting beat up real bad," Walker said. "I went home crying. But I got home and decided enough is enough. That summer, every day I started working out. Pushups, situps, I climbed trees and did chin-ups on the tree limbs. I started developing and losing weight.
"And then I started going to the library and reading books to myself in front of a mirror, so my speech got better and it helped me to have a little confidence. Once you have confidence, that's when you start to succeed. That's why I always say you never know what a kid is going to be. Give him an opportunity and see what happens."
Walker has long been an advocate for children at the national level but said he tries to devote a significant portion of his time to inspiring children at the grassroots level, too. Every other Saturday, he invites children and parents from his Southlake, Texas, neighborhood to a nearby club to train with him.
"At first the kids were reluctant to do it," Walker said. "But then their parents got involved and the kids started enjoying it because they're competitive with their parents."
That was the crux of Bryant's message as well. He's never hid his own competitive streak. Monday night he revealed that his daughters Natalia, 10, and Gianna, 7, have it as well.
"My daughter asked me, 'What was the score of the game? I think we won by three runs,'" Bryant said. "And I was like, 'Actually, they don't keep score in tee-ball.' She was like, 'Whaaaat?! Why am I here?'"
Encouraging kids to stoke those competitive flames, Bryant said, is essential to making sports and physical activity part of their lives and something they choose to do instead of spending time in front of a computer, a television or video game.
"It's hard to tell a kid that you need to get out there and compete because it's going to decrease your chance of having diabetes 30-40 years from now," Bryant said. "No kid wants to hear that. As a kid growing up, it was fun trash talking with your buddies and competing with your friends. That's what made getting out and being active fun. I certainly wasn't thinking about health issues 30-40 years from now.
"We have to promote to them that it's OK to be competitive. I think we've gone in the completely opposite direction of saying, 'Everybody is a winner, you come in 10th place and you still get a trophy.' I think it's more fun when kids actually compete and they understand who finished 1-2-3. If I'm third, the person that's first is probably going to be talking trash and it's going to motivate me to be No. 1. But it's all in a very good-hearted way."
While Blackmun's primary focus is on elite, Olympic-caliber athletes, the USOC also oversees amateur sports in this country, and the latest research on childhood obesity and activity is a major cause of concern both now and in the future.
"We're about putting as many Americans on the podium as we can," Blackmun said in an interview with Foudy. "And if you look at the statistics, it's a little bit scary when you look out 10 years and 20 years and you see the obesity rates and the activity levels and the diets of our kids. So for us it's very important to get those kids who are 5-10 years old right now back to playing sports."
The challenge, Blackmun said, "isn't to take them away from the video games" but rather to "make sports more fun."
It's an issue for policy makers as well as parents, and as all involved in Monday's event agreed, it must be addressed at many levels.
The Aspen Institute's Project Play, which launched in April 2013, has found that access to quality sports participation opportunities rests on three principle factors: trained coaches, sufficient community parks and facilities, and programs that are appropriate to age, gender, culture, skill and income level.
"There are a lot of people who can come up with money, but you still have to have local leaders who care about young people," Clinton said.
His foundation has worked to lower the amount of calories consumed in school drinks by 90 percent by working with companies that make soda and juice.
However, Clinton said, "because of financial difficulties that we're facing, you're not going to get a lot of money to build new sports facilities in schools from the national government. So we've got to do this at the grassroots level."
According to a 2012 University of Michigan study, 61 percent of children playing middle or high school sports were charged to play sports. Among lower-income families earning less than $60,000 per year, only one-third had a teenager playing school sports. Nearly one in five lower-income parents said that costs forced their children to cut back on sports.
Walker shook his head when Farrey reported that statistic. If that was the case when he grew up, Walker said, "there would be no Herschel Walker."
Guido Dominguez, a 13-year-old swimmer, runner and rower from Miami who serves as a Youth Advisory Board Member for the Clinton Foundation, discussed the need to advocate at the local level.
He said his classmates at Nautilus Middle School in Miami are required to take only one year of physical education, and even then, there are ways of getting around the requirement.
"I think that's a really big problem," Dominguez said. "I'm trying to speak to the policy makers about that because one year really isn't enough."
Bryant, who reached out to participate in Monday's event through Nike, which is involved through its Access to Sport Initiative, said that this kind of work will be a focus of his now and after his playing career is over. He's been sidelined since Dec. 17, when he suffered a fracture in his left lateral tibial plateau.
"I'm just focusing on getting healthy and trying to remain as strong as I possibly can so when I'm cleared, I don't have to play catchup," Bryant said. "I'll already be there and I'll just need a couple days."
Monday night his focus was on the kids in the audience and those at home who will listen to his words.
"I've heard kids say I'm not going to be a professional soccer player or basketball player, so what's the point?" Bryant said. "The point is you can learn so many things that can be beneficial for you down the road in whatever career path you choose."
Kayla McClendon, a senior from Chambliss High School in Atlanta who attended Monday's event, said that she wants to be a doctor one day regardless of how much success she has as a golfer.
McClendon said she switched from basketball to golf a few years ago, when her father enrolled her in the First Tee Program, which was founded by the LPGA, PGA and USGA in 1997 to bring golf to young people who would otherwise not be exposed to the game.
"They don't just teach me how to play golf, they teach me how to conduct myself every day," McClendon said. "Like when I'm meeting someone, how to shake their hand, look them in the eye and state my name clearly. They teach me how to handle certain situations so I don't get frustrated in school.
"It's given me a lot more confidence and helped me not to be afraid to meet new people or get up in front of a group of people to speak."
The conference continues through Wednesday and features leaders from business, technology, sports and philanthropy. Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea Clinton, will lead a variety of panels that will be webcast live at clintonfoundation.org/healthmatters.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.