Too Much Emphasis on Sports in our Schools?

I agree with this author, Amanda Ripley, writing for The Atlantic.  I have no idea why ed reformers and others seem to look the other way as the dollars and resources and energy and time flow to sports.  It's a great article.

But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?

In countries with more-holistic, less hard-driving education systems than Korea’s, like Finland and Germany, many kids play club sports in their local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would they?

Let's ask some international students who come to the U.S. for high school exchanges:

One element of our education system consistently surprises them: “Sports are a big deal here,” says Jenny, who moved to America from South Korea with her family in 2011. Shawnee High, her public school in southern New Jersey, fields teams in 18 sports over the course of the school year, including golf and bowling. Its campus has lush grass fields, six tennis courts, and an athletic Hall of Fame. “They have days when teams dress up in Hawaiian clothes or pajamas just because—‘We’re the soccer team!,’ ”

By contrast, in South Korea, whose 15-year-olds rank fourth in the world (behind Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong) on a test of critical thinking in math, Jenny’s classmates played pickup soccer on a dirt field at lunchtime. They brought badminton rackets from home and pretended there was a net. If they made it into the newspaper, it was usually for their academic accomplishments.

No kidding.  So how did we get here?

Sports, the thinking went, would both protect boys’ masculinity and distract them from vices like gambling and prostitution. “Muscular Christianity,” fashionable during the Victorian era, prescribed sports as a sort of moral vaccine against the tumult of rapid economic growth. “In life, as in a foot-ball game,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in an essay on “The American Boy” in 1900, “the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”

Athletics succeeded in distracting not just students but entire communities. As athletic fields became the cultural centers of towns across America, educators became coaches and parents became boosters.

Indeed, if you grew up in a small isolated town as I did, you see this sports complex as central to town pride and entertainment.

But what did one small town in Texas (gasp!) do?

In the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down Premont Independent School District for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Ernest Singleton suspended all sports—including football.

To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs, which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and baseball teams each year.

Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.

That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” says Desiree Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont. “I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of weeks.”

But don't sports bring money into schools?

And contrary to what most people think, ticket and concession sales do not begin to cover the cost of sports in the vast majority of high schools (or colleges).

Football is, far and away, the most expensive high-school sport.

Many of the costs are insidious, Roza has found, “buried in unidentifiable places.” For example, when teacher-coaches travel for game days, schools need to hire substitute teachers. They also need to pay for buses for the team, the band, and the cheerleaders, not to mention meals and hotels on the road. For home games, schools generally cover the cost of hiring officials, providing security, painting the lines on the field, and cleaning up afterward.

And, of course, football, with the tackling and neck and head injuries, is very dangerous.  New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott won't let his children play.  Nor will former Pro Bowl quarterback, Kurt Warner.  Nor Minnesota Vikings star, Adrian Peterson.  These guys should know. 

Late start?

Athletics even dictate the time that school starts each day: despite research showing that later start times improve student performance, many high schools begin before 8 a.m., partly to reserve afternoon daylight hours for sports practice.

What of the good of sports?

But here’s the thing: most American principals I spoke with expressed no outrage over the primacy of sports in school. In fact, they fiercely defended it. 

“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have more athletic opportunities for students, not less,” Bigham, the former Tennessee principal, told me. His argument is a familiar one: sports can be bait for students who otherwise might not care about school. “I’ve seen truancy issues completely turned around once students begin playing sports,” he says. “When students have a sense of belonging, when they feel tied to the school, they feel more part of the process.”

Andreas Schleicher, a German education scientist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, has visited schools all over the world and is an authority on different regional approaches to education. (I profiled Schleicher for this magazine in 2011.) He is wary of the theory that sports can encourage sustained classroom engagement. “Our analysis suggests that the most engaging environment you can offer students is one of cognitive challenge combined with individualised pedagogical support,” he told me in an e-mail. “If you offer boring and poor math instruction and try to compensate that with interesting sport activities, you may get students interested in sports but I doubt it will do much good to their engagement with school.” 

What's the big picture that ed reformers constantly tell us - what's our place in the world.

But at this moment in history, now that more than 20 countries are pulling off better high-school-graduation rates than we are, with mostly nominal athletic offerings, using sports to tempt kids into getting an education feels dangerously old-fashioned. America has not found a way to dramatically improve its children’s academic performance over the past 50 years, but other countries have—and they are starting to reap the economic benefits.

I found this section fascinating (it's about college sports):

At Spelman College, a historically black, all-women’s college in Atlanta, about half of last year’s incoming class of some 530 students were obese or had high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, or some other chronic health condition that could be improved with exercise. Each year, Spelman was spending nearly $1 million on athletics—not for those students, but for the 4 percent of the student body that played sports.

Spelman’s president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, found the imbalance difficult to justify.  That April, after getting approval from her board and faculty, she gathered Spelman’s athletes and coaches in an auditorium and announced that she was going to cancel intercollegiate sports after the spring of 2013, and begin spending that $1 million on a campus-wide health-and-fitness program. 

But Tatum’s signal was clear: lifelong health habits matter more than expensive, elite sporting competitions with rival schools.

What if we did switch things up?

Imagine, for a moment, if Americans transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports—the rankings, the trophies, the ceremonies, the pride—to high-school academics. We would look not so different from South Korea, or Japan, or any of a handful of Asian countries whose hypercompetitive, pressure-cooker approach to academics in many ways mirrors the American approach to sports. Both approaches can be dysfunctional; both set kids up for stress and disappointment. 

The difference is that 93 percent of South Korean students graduate from high school, compared with just 77 percent of American students—only about 2 percent of whom receive athletic scholarships to college.


Anonymous said…
I felt like the article was written by someone who didn't really understand the varied role of sports in different parts of the US and in different schools. I don't know how the problem plays out in rural schools in Texas, but I'd want to know more about the environment here in SPS before leaping onto the bandwagon.

How do parents and kids in different HS in Seattle feel about the role that sports plays in the school?

I've heard the stories about Garfield and Wroten (which are dreadful). But, how does the sports at Roosevelt, Garfield, Nathan Hale, Ballard, . . . . influence the environment for all the students? (I do know sports don't play a significant rule at Center School).

How about at Seattle Prep, Lakeside, Bush, etc.?

Anonymous said…
The principal at Nathan Hale is always encouraging kids to either join a sports team or a club. Kids that are involved in the life of the school generally stay on to graduate. I have heard that Holy Names requires sports participation.

Frankly I think it is how the school approaches it. At Nathan Hale, almost all sports are no cut. I think in Texas it is probably true that there is too much money spent on sports (instant replay on the football score board!) and not enough on actual education. Seattle Schools seem to have a better balance. Roosevelt doesn't even have a football field to play on and instead use Memorial Stadium or Nathan Hale's Stadium.

ZB, you said something important - how do sports influence the environment for ALL students? That is a big and worthy question. Is there anything else that the money and time spent on sports could be used for to benefit more (or all) students?

One of my son (at one high school) tried out for soccer. There were about 85 boys and he said no numbers were assigned but oddly, the coaches seemed to know some of the boys. That was because they also coached club soccer, knew them and picked them. (My son did eventually make the team but was disillusioned by the process.)

The other son's experience was at Hale where yes, most sports are no cut. You have to balance that out, though. No cut, also usually means no play if you are not top tier. It means going to practice, suiting up and never having a minute of playing time. I'm not sure it that much better (and my son had a disability which made feel worse to him).

The fact that some schools don't have football fields merely means the district didn't have the land. If they had the land, they would have their own fields (and that's why Memorial Stadium is so vital to the district has the home field for several high schools).

"Kids that are involved in the life of the school generally stay on to graduate."

And is the only "life" at Hale sports? No, it's not. So what if there were fewer sports?
Anonymous said…
Like most other Americans, I can rattle off the many benefits of high-school sports: exercise, lessons in sportsmanship and perseverance, school spirit, and just plain fun. All of those things matter,

So what is the point of school? It's only recently that passing a whole string of tests was the main idea of school. Really. The goal is producing good citizens, capable of being independent, going to work, and raising their own families. Sports teaches so many values related to that primary goal. Given that we have an obesity epidemic, it's hard to understand anybody who thinks we should just punt sports. Are you ever really going to use calculus? Ever? Or even Algebra 2? But think of all the things sports teach: fitness, body awareness, collaboration, perseverance, punctuality, attitude, respect, team work, collaboration, planning. All the things that we actually really value. And all the things that help students be successful in many other areas of their lives, including in their academics.

Also not mentioned is that students playing sports for 2 hours after school are NOT doing drugs, drinking, vandalizing property, having sex, or engaging in many other poor choices for those 2 hours. Hopefully, remembering the team will keep them from those activities even when the practice is over.

Funny thing though. You never hear this sort of whining over music programs, or theater. All the same things against sports could be said for them too.

Anonymous said…
Lakeside GREATLY values their sports teams and sports participation. Read about it. Students are encouraged to participate in as many sports as possible. And, a really wide array of sports is available and professionally coached by 100 coaches. Not to mention incredible facilities. 80% of the students play sports. This is a great thing about private schools. Sports are offered to a bigger percentage of the students, and it's an expected educational opportunity. It wouldn't be an expectation if there were no benefit. Posts like this one, really show little understanding of the issue nor what students are missing when the opportunity is denied. Competitive sports should be more available, and to more students in public schools. Not less available.

RosieReader said…
HP - the article addressees the oft-repeated mantra that sports keeps students engaged. It sounds like common sense. But there's no real evidence one way or the other that it actually does.

Anonymous said…
Sports is what gets my kid out of bed and to school each day. For our family it is a godsend.

Sorry your kid did not have the same experience - but I suspect sports wasn't the "thing" that kept him engaged and something he just wanted to give a try. And good for him! There are lessons to be learned in all experiences - good and bad.

Anonymous said…
I agree with reader that sports should be more available in schools not less. Here is a recent quote and link from NYTimes:

"Children who are physically fit absorb and retain new information more effectively than children who are out of shape, a new study finds, raising timely questions about the wisdom of slashing physical education programs at schools."

- Sounders FC
I believe that most of you are missing the point - most students are NOT in sports. Sports costs schools a lot of money (and clearly from the article, they are sacrificing academics for sports).

Do you not believe this is true for SPS? You have zero doubts about this route even as we don't see a single other first-world country doing this?

Just asking. (Also, one son remained an athlete, just not at his school. Again, you don't have to have sports at school, to have a child in a sport.)
Anonymous said…

I don't think people are missing the point. They just don't agree with you. There is a difference. You seem to be taking your own family's experience as the correct view, and not looking further. With all due respect, this is what you (rightly) dislike when other parents do this. There are valid points on both sides of the sports in school argument. Try to be a little more open minded.
-Be fair
Anonymous said…
A large majority of Hale students participate in sports. It isn't just sports though, it is also clubs. It is sports and clubs which engage the kids and keep them interested in school. Even this town in Texas has added sports back. Just not football because of the expense.

Patrick said…
I think it's a good thing for students to be doing something active. However, the interschool competitive sports, where maybe a couple of dozen students play and the rest watch, and that dominate the budget is not such a good thing. It only provides exercise for the participants, and little money or encouragement is left over, so it fuels the obesity epidemic among the student body as a whole. I'd like to see noncompetitive sports that the students can do their whole lives have as much priority as football or basketball.
RosieReader said…
I think it's important to distinguish between sports-as-activity-good-for-the-body and competitive-sports-between-schools. The NYT article cited by SOundersFC focused on the former. The Atlantic article discusses the latter.

It strikes me that there could be a lot more sports/activity in schools, and much less organized, inter-school competitive sports. In that regard, it will be interesting to hear how the Spelman College experiment pans out. They ended their competitive sports program entirely, and are now spending significant funds to promote physical activity and wellness for their entire student population. To me, that is the essence of what sports-in-school should be about.
Anonymous said…
I am not missing the point. I just think you are wrong about the value of sports in high school.

Magua said…
I see the value of students participating in sports.

I also think that educators in public districts are obliged to do a cost/benefit analysis for their students when considering if/how many sports to offer. Public districts should be considering the total cost (including less apparent costs like hiring a sub if a teacher/coach has to travel with the team), and what percentage of the student body is participating in the school's athletic offerings. There isn't enough money not to look at every dollar a school spends - and in the case of something like football (or theater, if you'd prefer), if there is a disproportionate amount of spending on an activity that a small percentage of students participate in.
Anonymous said…
I hope that when the difficult decisions about resource allocation mentioned in the strategic plan are made - cutting expenditures on after school sports is considered. Too much money per involved student for the benefit received.

Which north end or West Seattle schools have sports fields we could build on?


I only put up my experience AFTER others referenced Seattle Schools. Not in my original post.

I absolutely believe there is value in sports in school - I just think as Americans we go overboard with it.

No, I have no problem with disagreement. I'm just surprised to find no discussion about what other countries are doing (or not doing) on this subject.

That was the discussion I was looking for but apparently not.

Magua, that would be interesting to find out. How much does the district spend on sports? How much does each high school sports booster group raise? How many students don't participate because of costs (I've heard to be a cheerleader it's a huge amount of money to spend/raise.)

But I'm thinking the status quo on this subject seems to be the norm. Okay. It's just a thread on an interesting article.
Anonymous said…
@reader: It had to happen. I agree with you 100%.

@MW: When I was in school it was the Japanese taking over and besting us in every way. Then Europe (again) for awhile. And let's not forget the Russians and their proxies. Now it's China and India, and small European countries, once again, we're supposedly losing everything too.

While we peasants chase a new rabbit every decade, Wall Street crooks and the 1% rob us all blind and steal away our children's futures.

Instead of chasing a new boogeyman like school sports, hows about we jail some Wall Street Crooks, drain the DC swamp of its bribes and repeal some ridiculous trade agreements that undermine US workers while exploiting those elsewhere for the almighty green Jesus!

We can trim, cut and eliminate down to our marrow, and in 50 years, our kids will be doing the same damn thing, while still saluting the flag every morning.

Sports, or no Sports should not even concern us compared to the mortgaging of our children's futures by student loan debt, credit default swaps (How in the hell were those ever legal? Ever?), CDO's (trust me, they were toxic as hell), etc., etc.

Sorry, it's been a long day, but I don't want to play tug of war with you over the last piece of bread while the 1%'s riches are surging to never before seen heights.

And yes, I was a HS athlete, and yes, it had a lot to do with maintaining my interest and feeling a part of the social scene in school. While I suppose I could have done Math Olympics instead, it wouldn't have compared to what it was. And I still go to my old HS games where I see friends of 30 years ago. If they didn't happen, neither would that. I think they are good for all kids, even those sitting in the stands. School pride is a good thing. WSDWG
WSDWG, that's quite the tangent you went off on.

Of course, Wall Street should pay. That's yet another area where we as Americans look the other way.

It's not a tug-of-war - it was just a jumping off place for a discussion.

And no school pride without sports, eh?

(I just tweeted that if I want to get blasted just start a discussion on gifted education or sports. Very touchy subjects.)
Anonymous said…
Melissa, you are incredible. First you go on and on about how other countries really don't provide better educations. Then, lo and behold, we really do suck after all.... because of sports. Then, we find out why. Your kids got cut. It is really clear that sports are important and we should make it possible for everybody to play. The idea that kuds should just find other venues is equally bad. We could just as easily say that students get their math from Kumon or Khan Academy. I agree though, we shouldn't spend tons of money on sports that few students play, and that don't include many students. We do need to be smart about it. We need something like Title 9, except that all students should benefit.

Anonymous said…
All sports are by definition competitive and good-for-the body. I also think SPS does a pretty good job of promoting non-traditional and inclusive sports. If you want to see proof of these two points go watch a middle school coed ultimate frisbee match.

- Sounders FC
Anonymous said…

But it's not really clear that sports are important. I don't think they are. I'd like to get schools out of all sports. Run them through community centers.

Spend our education dollars on classroom learning during school hours. We are still waiting for a new math curriculum because we can't afford it.

"First you go on and on about how other countries really don't provide better educations."

When did I say that? I certainly said other countries have very different models that I might not like (see China) but they get results. I've done at least two threads on how great Finland is. So tell me where I said what you say I did.

Again, and for the last time, I have said NOTHING about "sucking" over sports. I posted a well-written article that posited some interesting thoughts and put it out for discussion.

So club sports are not as good as school sports and you liken the consideration of that to me saying "kuds" should go to Kumon instead of school? Big leap there.

Note: we DO have Title Nine.

I love, love, love Ultimate and it is NOT the traditional high-cost sport that many others are. It is pretty much the exception to the rule (and again, I've written about Ultimate numerous times).

I think this is all for comments because clearly there is no room for discussion.

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