Sports

In the 15 years that I have been blogging and creating content for education publications, there are two subjects that always draw angry (and often nasty and insulting) comments: Women in leadership. And sports.

There’s something about school sports that gets people a little overexcited. There’s a kind of passionate, Friday-Night-Lights loyalty toward school-based athletics that you don’t see for, say, Advanced Algebra or Chemistry. This fervor is often justified with old, familiar tropes: Sports are what keep kids in school. Sports build teamwork and leadership. Being an excellent athlete can lead to scholarships.

All of these have—or once had—kernels of truth. But do these benefits justify spending so much time and energy on preserving big-budget HS sports programs —especially during a virulent pandemic, for God’s sake?

Just how critical are school sports? Senator Roger Marshall (R-KS), during confirmation hearings for Dr. Miguel Carona, nominee for Education Secretary, revealed that he ‘believes that one of the biggest problems facing students and schools today is that allowing transgender students to play school sports means “there is not a level playing field.”’   This is the most important thing a sitting U.S. Senator in a basketball state could think to ask the prospective future leader of public education in America? Evidently.

Hey, I was a public school educator for 30+ years. I understand and appreciate the benefits of school sports programs. I also understand that in many school systems, especially those with privilege, athletics are the 800 lb. gorilla when it comes to making policies that are good for all the kids in a K-12 system, most of whom do not participate in competitive team sports.

I’ve got stories upon stories about that, from personal experience, but instead will share this alternative view of school sports: We had an exchange student one summer, a 16-year old girl from France. She was a recognized gymnast and talked about her passion for the sport and awards she’d won. We were building a new middle school that year, and our guest went with me to look at my new classroom, across from the gym.

She stood in the doorway and asked: Who is this gymnasium for? She was stunned by the stuff being unloaded, including some basic gymnastic equipment—and the beautiful wood-floor basketball court, the bleachers, the locker rooms and showers. Although she’d been a gymnast since she was a small child, she did not associate ‘sport’ with school. You had a physical conditioning class at school, but competitive sport took place (and was funded) out of school.

It made me realize how quintessentially American and ubiquitous school sports programs are—and wonder what that means about our collective understanding of the purpose of school. My usual response to school sports programs (and, let’s be blunt, aggressive parents) calling the shots was to advocate for kids who benefited from other programs—the arts and music, or academic challenges.  

But now there’s a pandemic. And it’s ripped up a lot of our expectations and hopes about what a rich, well-rounded, equitable education looks like, made us re-think what is most important in educating our children.

While each state, right now, is a hot, steaming kettle of clashing perspectives on what a safe return to face to face schooling looks like, the predominant voice in education policy-making in Michigan at this moment is a group called Let Them Play. They have filed suit against the MI Department of Health and Human Services. They have used the new face of ‘freedom’ from faux tyranny—a rally at the Capitol—to get attention. Even the fact that their leader is kind of shady and a conspiracy theorist has not stopped their noble quest to reinstate all contact sports in Michigan high schools—now—and get a spotlight, testifying in front of the Republican-led legislature.

The Legislature was more than happy to do that, because they’ve been in their own war with the Democratic Governor, since forever. Here’s a great headline that kind of summarizes life in Lansing: Republicans Willing to Risk the Lives and Health of Michiganders to Spit in the Face of Gov Gretchen Whitmer.

And yesterday, Governor Whitmer caved on this issue. Winter-season contact sports in high schools will resume on Monday. I’m sure she’s sick of fighting for the health of the state—even though Michigan is succeeding, big-time, in tamping down the rate of infection, currently ranking 47th in daily new case counts—and running up against brick walls with every precaution the DHHS mandates.

How will outbreaks work now, in high school sports? Will they result in temporary shutdowns? Or cover-ups? Who bears responsibility if a cluster of cases emerges after a few weeks of games?

Not my circus.

I mentioned this to a band director friend, and he said he’d long wondered whether professional associations for music education could have similar outcomes if they rallied at the Capitol and made friends with a conservative legislator or six. It was a depressing thought. Not only all that lobbying—but wondering who would advocate for American literature or World Languages or media centers?

The question, again: What benefits do school sports provide that make them worth the cost and the risk? A few kids get athletic scholarships, but only a handful. Same with preventing dropouts. Learning teamwork and leadership through sports is a function of good coaching, and therefore a variable, not a consistent factor.

I would suggest sports are a fun and worthwhile after-school occupation—as are any number of other activities, from the drama club to the robotics team. The most important purpose of public school is finding and enhancing the strengths of all students, so they will bring something positive to the community, as adults.

Too high-minded and la di da? Maybe. What do you think?

13 Comments

  1. I was in band and marching band, not good at sports, and girls teams weren’t popular pre-Title IX, might have enjoyed a swim team if they’d had it, but I think sports bring a school together socially. People in a community get behind and take pride in football and basketball, and students who might not excel in academics might be good on a team and inspired to work. I know sometimes schools spend and focus too much on certain sports, but I still think it makes a school.

    I also fear without sports charter schools will become more acceptable

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    1. From my 32 years experience in the same medium-sized suburban district, I would have to say that my school was dominated by athletics, and not in a good way, for most of my time there. We got national attention, back in the 90s, for the football team’s porn-watching parties before games. Like I said in the blog, I have stories upon stories, but that’s one of the worst.

      I am certainly in favor of school spirit, but I think loyalty to your town or neighborhood school is increasingly a thing of the past. As far as charters becoming more acceptable goes–I think maybe it works in the opposite direction with charters weakening geopgraphic loyalty to schools that everybody in the neighborhood used to attend. I absolutely agree that sports are one outlet for excellence, and we don’t provide enough of those in stripped-down schools.

      Thanks for commenting.

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  2. I was on a school board in Iowa and one for the US Defense Department schools in two German states.
    * Iowa high school has band boosters, athletic boosters, speech parents, cheer boosters, etc. Each raises money. Elementary schools have PTA as fundraiser. Middle school is somewhere in between as the sports attract fewer fans.
    * Per regulation, a DODDS school has one booster organization covering all extracurricular activities. We used excess funds at the end of the year for college scholarships. The system brings organizations together.

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    1. Bingo. I think that’s one of the reasons American public schools virtually all have sports programs, at least partially funded by public dollars: we’re a nation that believes that best way to increase productivity and economic gains is via competition. Even ruthless competition, which is generally terrible for kids.

      Even schools that have pay-to-play are paying the salaries of coaches and athletic directors and secretaries. And this addiction to competition is what has so totally unbalanced college athletics. Most of them justify out of control athletic spending by saying that the money comes back in via ticket sales. But nobody sits down to say–is this GOOD for student athletes? It’s all about winning.

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      1. At the college level, Sports Illustrated found that about 20 break even or make money. All the rest, lose it. Some lose substantial amounts. The difference appears as higher student fees and the like. Whereas reformers advocate paying college athletes because of all the revenue they bring, they have not to my knowledge recognized this fact.

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  3. The growth of the traveling team concept, high-level youth sports leagues outside state oversight, has increased opportunities for children of privilege. Inner city schools cannot keep up. At the same time, recruitment of athletes by high school coaches, always an issue, has become more legal. Florida allows any student to transfer and maintain eligibility. Iowa districts are supposed to ensure the transfers don’t facilitate white flight. That ends up making it easier for a Black athlete to transfer to a suburban coach.

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    1. There have been horrible abuses with recruitment in the past couple of years, with a father in MI pulling his son out of public school (with a good team) to start his own school and team, hoping his son would be recruited into the pros out of high school. Transfers are rampant here, too. It’s ugly.
      Thanks for chiming in–love the DODDS extra-curricular funding model.

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  4. I was kicked out of all extra-curricular activities in high school both my junior and senior years. I was a total bone-head and got extremely drunk at our sophomore end of school class party; richly deserved my punishment. Heading into basketball season my senior year my reputation got me kicked off when a girl claimed I was drinking at a party I didn’t attend. In those days, I totally bought the benefit of sports ideology. To this day, I am an unreconstructed sports fan. After teaching in a larger urban school, I have become a little less enthusiastic about high school sports but I do think close to half of our students participated in at least one sport. I don’t think it kept many people in school but it did teach the kids many lessons about working together and commitment. Many of them also created great friendships and treasure memories through their participation. In my school the district gave some support but most of the cost was covered by fundraising. So, I think we had it about right.

    We had an on-campus swimming pool that we shared with the Imperial Beach community. Several of my students were on the women’s water polo team. It was really a thrill when our “polo princesses” went up to La Jolla and beat all of the rich kids from around the county.

    I appreciate that your raising this issue, because I believe youth sports can be a very positive thing but are too often not. We definitely need to talk about equity and what is and is not valuable about them.

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    1. Equity in sports is a real deal. When schools here first floated Pay to Play, parents spoke up for kids whose families couldn’t afford to chip in. Don’t hear much about that any more. And don’t get me started on fund-raising–I spent 30 years fund-raising so my community could have a band program, and offer an opportunity to learn to play to every child (including those in special education and those who couldn’t afford to rent an instrument). All of those kids traveled with us, as well, via fund-raising. At the time, sports were free, and most of the coaches were teachers. School spirit was still a thing. A lot of that seems to have been lost.

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  5. As a drama, debate, forensics, choir kind of student almost too long ago to remember I do remember wondering why only athletes got to use the after school activity bus in our enormous rural district. And why the band had to stop traveling for the myriad area festivals in the summer. And why the choir, which was extraordinary, never participated in state or regional competitions.
    Don’t even think about after school tutoring programs…..
    Friday Night Lights were great for a community with little else to do besides church and bars, but it was never about the kids. Significantly more kids were involved in other activities. I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now what was up with the sports stuff. But to me that passion could not have justified endangering the health and safety of the community, then.
    As always, Nancy, thank you for your insights and awesome command of language.

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  6. I went to a small but very athletic school; the majority of students took part in at least one sport. I’m sure a *ton* of money was poured into it, but there was also a super-inclusive atmosphere in athletics in general; you could literally pick up a tennis racket and join the tennis team on JV if you wanted, and nobody would question your right to be there. Our track team consistently won championships, but you could also show up totally out-of-shape and be welcome to run. There were also a ton of opportunities for little kids to participate in a variety of sports, provided cheaply through the town (high school kids ran a lot of lessons/”camps”/etc) on a pretty easy schedule for parents.

    I’m told a lot of that kind of went out the window when our town added football.

    I think having *the one sport* that sucks up all the money and attention is a huge part of the problem with sports. Your options to get recognized in sports went from “pick one of a variety of activities that appeal to different coordination/speed/determination levels” to “If you want recognition in sports, you’d better be able to handle a football/basketball if you’re a boy or be a cheerleader if you’re a girl.”

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    1. Agree. I think smaller schools do a MUCH better job of offering athletic opportunities as well as other opportunities. I am a 30-year veteran music teacher, and the ONLY schools where kids can be in band and on the football team are small schools–where they can also be in the drama club (even if they’re not a ‘drama kid’) and the student council, etc.–tasting everything.

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