High School Sports

Two related stories about sports as the school year is just about ready to start.

One is about Colts quarterback Andrew Luck who announced an early retirement.  From the NY Times:

What really shocked those booing fans and the dumbstruck media, though, was that Luck had violated the cardinal norm of sports culture — playing through the pain — after a career of fidelity to it.
Scholars call it “hegemonic masculinity,” a fancy phrase defining the traditional male ideal as being stoic, tough and aggressive. The body is an instrument of violence in this rationalization — alienating the player from his own feelings of tenderness, or at least neutralizing them via cortisone shots.

The former quarterback Steve Beuerlein gave the loudest voice to the macho take: “This I cannot defend or justify,” he tweeted. “No scenario where retirement is defensible.” Luck, he declared, “owes it to his team” to keep playing despite his injuries.
The injury I worry most about for kids is concussion which happens frequently in football and soccer. 

The other story is this one from The Atlantic:
In the 2018–19 school year, the number of kids participating in high-school sports declined for the first time in three decades. At least, that was the headline; the reality was even worse. Thirty years ago, the high-school population itself was shrinking, due to a short-term falloff in births after the baby boom. This past school year is the only period on record when high-school sports participation declined even as school attendance increased.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but it definitely concerns me,” Tom Farrey, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, told me. “Evidence on the benefits of youth sports has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade. Kids who are physically active are one-tenth as likely to be obese, less likely to have chronic disease, and more likely to stay in school.”
The most obvious reason for the decline of high-school sports is that football, the Friday-night-lit mainstay of the high-school experience, is withering on the vine, likely due to fears about injuries and head trauma. The number of high-school boys playing the sport fell for the fifth straight year in 2018–19, and fewer male high schoolers now play football than any other time this century. 
I note that in SPS access to playing football comes at the high school level while in some surrounding districts, they have middle school football.
But it’s not just football. Basketball, baseball, golf, and lacrosse are all losing players too. The number of girls playing high-school basketball has fallen to its lowest level since the early 1990s. Head injuries can’t explain all that. Neither can school funding or the number of high-school teams, which are steady, according to the NFHS. Something else is going on.

The deeper story is that the weed of American-style meritocracy is strangling the roots of youth sports. As parents have recognized that athletic success can burnish college applications, sports have come to resemble just another pre-professional program, with rising costs, hyper-specialization, and massive opportunity-hoarding among the privileged.
Before kids enter high school, they tend to participate in youth sports leagues, which have become one big pay-to-play machine. It’s now common for high-income parents to pull their kids out of the local soccer or baseball leagues and write thousand-dollar checks to join super-teams that travel to play similar kids several counties away.
A 2015 paper from Harvard concluded that specialization—defined as at least one year of intensive training in a single sport that requires quitting other activities—increased risks of “injury and burnout.” In July, ESPN published a two-part story on specialization in basketball and its correlation with injuries and emotional exhaustion. One coach likened the overwork of young athletes to “an epidemic.”

You might think most of that scholarship money is going to help kids from poor families who couldn’t otherwise afford college. That’s not the case. In 2010, just 28 percent of Division I basketball players were first-generation college students, meaning they likely came from low-income families. Five years later, that figure has fallen by nine percentage points. Today, fewer than one in seven students receiving athletic scholarships across all Division I sports come from families in which neither parent went to college. Farrey calls this the slow-motion “gentrification” of college sports.

Institutions that were meant to be opportunity-equalizers for the rich, poor, and everybody in between—community youth sports leagues, public high schools, the American college system—are being stealthily hijacked to serve the primary goal of so many high-income parents, which is to replicate their advantages in their children’s generation.
Of course, many students just want to participate in sports for the fun and to be with friends. How it got so hyped up that playing and gasp! losing is a bad thing is sad and a loss for kids. 

I wonder what the stats are for SPS.


Anonymous said…
On the current open thread, which has the usual holier-than-thou attacks against academically gifted students, someone posted how the fierce competition to get the best GPA on the hardest courses really is a sideshow & how that belies how *insanely competitive* it is to gain admittance to a great college by pointing out what the Hollywood college admissions bribery crimes inadvertently showcased: that the best odds of getting in is by being a desirable athlete! He was right on both counts: it is far more difficult to get admitted to any competitive university & that pressure has meant that the niche avenue of the sports has become noticed and this competition has shifted in that direction as well. There are only so many spots, & families wanting to support their youth’s journey in life and see college as a key pivot point will do what’s necessary (including buffing up their children’s sports CV) to help them gain that competitive edge in the college-admittance sweepstakes.

2 articles:

1. African-American youth are disproportionately involved in football, a brutal game that damages their bodies and minds, that for the most part is played for a white audience & earns profit for white owners:


With all this virtue signaling that is hapless and actually damaging to vulnerable communities who are furthest from educational justice, it really says a lot about all those self-righteous Geary types that they never once actually attack real problems like, yes, football:
not all parents are holding back their kids from tackle football at equal rates, which is creating a troubling racial divide. Kids in mostly white upper-income communities are leaving football for other sports such as lacrosse or baseball. But black kids in lower-income communities without a lot of other sports available are still flocking to football. In keeping with America’s general racial demographics...44% of black boys play tackle football, compared with 29% of white boys...These racial divides show up in the football that America watches: black athletes make up nearly half of all Division I college-football players, up from 39 percent in 2000. White athletes make up 37%, down from 51%.

This divergence paints a troubling picture of how economic opportunity—or a lack thereof—governs which boys are incentivized to put their body and brain at risk to play. Depending on where families live, and what other options are available to them, they see either a game that is too violent to consider or one that is necessary and important, if risky. Millions of Americans still watch football...That a distinct portion of families won’t let their children play creates a disturbing future for the country’s most popular game...As brain-damage fears have grown, upper-income boys have started decamping to sports such as golf or lacrosse, which are less available in poorer communities...Even as the dangers associated with tackle football become more evident, the sport is growing more lucrative...Some of the biggest schools have doubled what they make from football over the past decade.

While black boys are disproportionately getting channeled into a violent sport, white people are making the most money off of it. 70% of NFL players are black, but only 9.9% of managers in the league office are. NFL was just 52 percent black in 1985. Only 2 people of color are majority owners of NFL franchises.

Players who want to get recruited by NFL teams must attend the NFL Scouting Combine, a week-long showcase in which they perform mental and physical tests. Athletes’ hand size, arm length, and wingspan are measured during this event, and players are asked to stand naked but for their workout shorts so that team recruiters can see how they are built...team executives, mostly white men, are evaluating the bodies of black players, deciding whether to make an investment.

Anonymous said…
2. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/meritocracys-miserable-winners/594760/

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition
Meritocracy prizes achievement above all else, making everyone—even the rich—miserable.

Two decades ago, when I started writing about economic inequality, meritocracy seemed more likely a cure than a cause. Meritocracy’s early advocates championed social mobility. In the 1960s, for instance, Yale President Kingman Brewster brought meritocratic admissions to the university with the express aim of breaking a hereditary elite. Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy—for a time—replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.

Today’s meritocrats still claim to get ahead through talent and effort, using means open to anyone. In practice, however, meritocracy now excludes everyone outside of a narrow elite. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale collectively enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from households in the bottom 60 percent. Legacy preferences, nepotism, and outright fraud continue to give rich applicants corrupt advantages. But the dominant causes of this skew toward wealth can be traced to meritocracy. On average, children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000. Only about one in 200 children from the poorest third of households achieves SAT scores at Yale’s median. Meanwhile, the top banks and law firms, along with other high-paying employers, recruit almost exclusively from a few elite colleges.

Hardworking outsiders no longer enjoy genuine opportunity. According to one study, only one out of every 100 children born into the poorest fifth of households, and fewer than one out of every 50 children born into the middle fifth, will join the top 5 percent. Absolute economic mobility is also declining—the odds that a middle-class child will outearn his parents have fallen by more than half since mid-century—and the drop is greater among the middle class than among the poor. Meritocracy frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.

Public anger over economic inequality frequently targets meritocratic institutions...Outrage at nepotism and other disgraceful forms of elite advantage-taking implicitly valorizes meritocratic ideals. Yet meritocracy itself is the bigger problem, and it is crippling the American dream. Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.

But what, exactly, have the rich won? Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return...We are accustomed to thinking that reducing inequality requires burdening the rich. But because meritocratic inequality does not in fact serve anyone well, escaping meritocracy’s trap would benefit virtually everyone

Anonymous said…
Back to the topic of this post - sports. Meanwhile the numbers of kids playing Ultimate Frisbee are booming. Most middle schools have 2-5 mixed gender teams throughout Seattle, including the South End schools. Yes, lots of kids of color are playing, thanks to the great AgeUp and South End Ultimate programs. Most high schools have 2 teams each for boys and girls, despite it being a non-SPS funded club sport. Most elementary schools have 2-3 mixed gender teams associated with them. Increasing numbers of kids every year, because of the sportsmanship ethic of the game. And so far, ultimate player students don't get much of any college tuition assistance for Ultimate, so they're playing for the love of the sport.
Fan, and Ultimate is so cheap to run because no refs, good sportsmanship, open to all. It's a great sport.
Outsider said…
I wonder how much the decline of interest in high school sports just reflects the decline of interest in high school itself. Except for the stars, high school sports requires a sustained commitment -- an expectation to be there all four years and work your way up through the ranks. Perhaps that was more likely in the "Happy Days" high school of yore, a carefree whirl of clubs, pep rallies, games, and Friday night dances.

Now days, high school has become an identity politics battle ground where (depending on who you are) institutional racism is waiting around each corner to defeat you, or you are told to check your privilege and pressured to recite a PC catechism about how the irredeemable evil of your whiteness has made America a hell-hole throughout its history. Meanwhile, classes are increasingly dumbed down and disrupted by discipline problems, so less and less actual learning occurs. If there are any special classes that would make you want to stay in high school, you can expect that some school bureaucrat is trying hard to cancel them. Not to mention the threat of crime and bullying. Look at the GreatSchools review of Highline High School in Burien (https://www.greatschools.org/washington/seattle/719-Highline-High-School/)
and what would you rather do, go out for the team, or get out as soon as you can?

It wouldn't be a surprise if students were fleeing for Running Start, college courses, online courses, early graduation, year abroad, or any other way they can think of to minimize their high school exposure.
Anonymous said…
That Atlantic article is pretty biased, IMHO. While the numbers may or may not be accurate, there are a lot of presumptions about the reasons behind them.

Personally, I don't know many parents who put their kids in club-based sports out of an effort to "burnish a college application" or because they thought their kid was going to to go pro or something. I also don't know any who thought that playing on an expensive club team would look any better on a college application than playing on their high school team instead.

On the specialization issue, while I agree that "specialization" at a young age might not be good for kids in that it increases the risk for overuse injuries and may increase the odds of burnout in that sport, the idea that the kids on one sports team would be the same kids who would have been playing on the other sports teams seems like a leap. If my kid loves soccer and plays on the soccer team, why would we think that if they didn't play soccer year-round then they'd also be on the basketball and baseball teams? In reality, they would sit out those seasons, and get less exercise than when having the opportunity to play year round.

Regarding the idea that local leagues are desiccated because travel teams steal the resources and players, I think that's a pretty simplistic analysis. You could also look at this way--by providing another option for some of the strongest players (i.e., club/travel teams), you create an accessible option for some of the less skilled, less competitive, and/or less dedicated kids/teens to also participate in sports. These are, after all, often the kids who would NOT have made the high school teams.

There's also the issue of community funding and support for local sports. As cities are faced with more and more serious issues, funding for community programs including youth sports programs, referees, facility maintenance, etc. often seems to fall. If community center hours are cut, if field lights are turned on for fewer hours, if the number of teams is reduced, etc., it's harder to access teams and games. In Seattle, for example, if can be virtually impossible for your neighborhood team to find a full-size (or even half-size) field on which to practice, and even that may mean an inconvenient drive or practice schedule--or both. If cities neglect to plan for youth sports, it's not surprising if fewer families elect to participate. It's not just low-income kids who can "lose the sports habit" when local sports opportunities are not sufficiently funded--or effectively run. Hyper-competitiveness is also prevalent in community sports leagues, too, with gung-ho parent coaches awarding most of the playing time to the most skilled players (and/or their own children) at the expense of kids who are new to the sport or less athletic...which can turn those kids off not only that sport, but team sports in general. Poorly trained (or untrained) volunteer coaches can negatively impact a child's self-esteem for years to come.

Anonymous said…

...Then there's this whole "opportunity-hoarding" thing. Hoarding implies that people are taking something to prevent others from getting it. To the extent that those with means are taking advantage of costly club sports, it's just that--they are taking advantage of the opportunities and choices presented. Choosing something because you can is not the same as hoarding. In fact, many of the expensive leagues actually use part of the fees to cover scholarships for those who can't afford to pay, and parents are fine with that. Yes, the scholarship players will be great athletes, and the teams benefit from their inclusion. But that's the same with high school teams--skilled athletes are going to be more likely to make the team, and may also get special considerations (e.g., individualized tutoring to keep their grades high enough to play, special transfers, etc.). We don't call if "opportunity hoarding" when more athletic students make all the high school teams and less athletic students get cut year after year--even though they really want to play, do we?

flip side
Anonymous said…
After multiple transportation problems at RHS last year for girls' teams, this year the girls' swim team has been told they aren't allowed to use the locker room in the mornings to shower and change. I wonder if football players are denied access to buses and lockers? I'm guessing not. For my girls, the constant message that their sports and teams aren't as important as for boys is tiring. I can see why girls are discouraged and stop participating in public school sports if they have options to be supported elsewhere.


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