The Value of High School Sports

In my previous life as a member of a local school committee one of the regular issues I and my fellow members faced was funding sports. It was generally agreed that the sports program was important, especially in the areas of enhancing team building qualities, self-confidence, leadership and discipline.

But despite the pluses associated with sports, we always ran up against the cost and the impact on other programs, academic programs, programs that were associated not just with standardized testing but programs that were critical for forming a well-rounded student. The debate was never about algebra versus football, but where to cut in both the Math Department and the Athletic Department. Too often we were not only faced with this Solomon’s dilemma but also the option of gutting art, music, wellness, the library in order to save both algebra and football.

I just read a piece by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic called ” How Sports is Ruining High School” and the story line was not only familiar but disturbing. Not surprisingly, Ripley shows how our Asian and European competitors do not fund high school sports and downplay the importance of sports in the school environment. Young people in places like Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Germany play sports outside of school and concentrate their academic energies in the classroom with no pep rallies, cheerleaders, teachers who also coach, homecoming parades, and sports boosters.

Ripley shows that when students come to the US on a one year exchange from our competitor countries they are not only amazed but befuddled with the over the top attention paid to sports. They wonder why all this attention to sports rather than academics. Of course all this attention to sports shows up in our below standard showing on international assessment tests and the oftentimes crippling budget problems that occur when scarce dollars are shifted to sports while vital academic programs are marginalized.

The temptation is to single out Texas where Friday Night Football is embedded in the culture and the money for stadiums overshadows the money for libraries. But Texas is not alone in choosing sports over academics; this is a national phenomenon and failure. Certainly, this country is not going to strip high schools of its athletic programs, since there would be a huge push back. But there needs to be a conversation in every school committee about what the proper priorities should be in our high schools.

In this time of scarce resources the key questions must be, ” Do we need to cut athletics in order to upgrade algebra and should we accent art, music, wellness and the library rather than football? In South Korea and Finland the answers to the above would be easy and not even questions worth asking.

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