Are sports ruining our high schools?

The cover of the October issue of The Atlantic reads, “How Sports Are Ruining High School”. Author Amanda Ripley’s article, “The Case Against High School Sports” outlines the costs, financial and otherwise, incurred as a result of high school sports programs. She brings up some valid points. But there’s a lot she gets wrong.

If you would like, you can read Ms. Ripley’s article here. To summarize, she believes that our American culture is so obsessed with sports that we are more focused there than academics. She opines that not only does that focus detract from classroom performance for those who play, it causes students not involved in athletics to suffer as well. Money spent on sports programs could go to scholastic enrichment, she says. Less-qualified teachers are hired, only because they can coach. Ripley sites statistics from nations that do not emphasize athletics in high school that are out-performing the United States in graduation rates. She points to other cultures where parents are at home “practicing” math with their children instead of sports, and driving them just like a coach towards academic achievement. The author assumes that this is something inherently better for the child and for society.

The flip side of this argument of course, is what about the students who may not have a parent at home waiting for them after school with a plate of warm cookies and an open math book? We have all heard of inner-city students whose only guidance came from a coach or a sports team. These may be at-risk kids who would have no reason to stay in school were it not for the athletic programs offered and the fact that they had to perform at minimum grade standards to participate.

Most people believe kids should be well-rounded, not one-dimensional. Is it healthy for a child to get up early to go to tutoring, take a full day of the most challenging high school classes available, followed by an afternoon of SAT prep training then a late night of Advanced Placement homework with no outlet, no focus on anything other than academics? Of course, sports are not for everyone. And Ripley makes the argument that while it is a minority that plays sports, the entire student body is affected for the reasons mentioned above. But even then, plenty of non-athletes still enjoy their schools’ athletics as fans. Attending Friday night football or basketball games, cheering for the team with friends, can be a fun and memorable part of the high school experience. Perhaps The Atlantic feels those children would be better-served if they spent that time alone at home on their computers. And the article did not mention that there are plenty of schools that offer athletic programs and still boast incredibly high graduation rates as well as tremendous college placement results. The extremes – on both sides of the spectrum – are what we should take care to avoid.

Are there high schools in the country that might go over-the-top in their football programs and funnel too much money and attention there, when they should be thinking more about academics? Probably. But I’m not buying that the reason the United States ranks twentieth in the world in high school graduation rates has anything to do with our sports. Just four months before this issue, The Atlantic published the “surprise findings” that our nation’s high school grad rate had reached it’s highest point in forty years. And we all know that also increasing over the past forty years to its highest point ever has been our interest and participation in high school sports. Statistically speaking, I’d say that makes a pretty good case that sports are not ruining, but enriching, our nation’s schools.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Sondheimer, The L.A. Union School District has discovered a striking correlation between students’ participation in interscholastic athletics and their performance in both attendance and in the classroom. According to the study, the 35,000 student-athletes in LAUSD attended an average of 21 more days of school per year than their counterparts, while they also sported GPAs some 0.55 to 0.74 points higher than non-athletes.

“[The study statistics] prove what has generally been assumed, that participation in high school athletics, on average, positively enhances the student’s academic progress in comparison with the rest of the student body,” LAUSD commissioner of athletics Barbara Fiege said in a memo to the districts schools, obtained by the Times. “I believe that a large part of this,” she continued,  “is due to the intervention and guidance provided daily by qualified coaches, who understand the relationship between academic and athletic success.”

When my children were in grade school I used to pray that they would be on a team – any team, all the way through high school so that they had something positive to do, to aspire to, and would not be like the teenagers I saw just “hanging out” and doing who-knows-what. Throw all the statistics out the window. I can tell you from personal experience seeing the impact sports has had on my kids and their clean-nosed friends who are also teammates, we should be finding ways to ensure there are more athletics in our nation’s high schools, not fewer.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.

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One Response

  1. Brian Gottas argument that Amanda Ripley has “got a lot of things wrong.” is completely accurate an agree with it.

    The point that Ripley that does not make is that sports uplift kids that do not have the privilege of a good home. It allows students to go to a safe place and be able to express themselves freely. There are no restraints or financial factors that can hold them back from what they want to do.

    Most high school sports as well set a standard that each high school student must reach to be able to play in their games. On my golf team in high school, if you had a D or lower you were not allowed to play and on the basketball team you could not play with 2 F’s.

    The comparison Ripley makes to international public schooling is not a true comparison.. Massachusetts scores just as high as South Korea and they stress the importance of high school sports with prep schools.

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