In North America, in the United States specifically, we have a unique obsession with high school sports that is rarely seen in other parts of the world. We seemingly have developed a mindset that associates the success of a school with the pedigree of its sports programs. One could argue that not only is this obsession bordering on destructive, but that it’s completely backwards.
Simply put, there is really no where else in the world that cares about high school sports near the level that we do in North America. The focus of high schools in places like Finland, Germany, South Korea and Singapore, countries that routinely lap the United States (and to a lesser extent Canada) in terms of academic performance, is surprisingly enough, strictly on academics. The context of sport and it’s place in their schools is drastically different from our own. Rather than a symbol of power and success, sport is used partcipatlelively to help with academics. Students routinely play sports and games, but in a non-competitive environment and to encourage an active lifestyle amongst all students. It is strictly a secondary priority relative to school (seems crazy right?) Student success is defined not by athletic pedigree, but rather excelling in academics and growing as a person in a learning environment focused on the needs of the students. If students are awarded, or recognition is given in the newspaper, it’s almost always for academic accomplishments. If you walk into the average american high school, as sociologist James Coleman noted, a visitor “would likely be confronted, first of all, with a trophy case. His examination would reveal a curious fact: The gold and silver cups, with rare exceptions, symbolize victory in athletic contests, not scholastic ones…Altogether, the trophy case would suggest to the innocent visitor that he was entering an athletic club, not an educational institution”. This is not to say sports don’t play an important role for children in those countries, but they are played competitively at the club levels, not for the schools.
It’s somewhat ironic to see the current state of high school sports, with it’s majestic stadiums, pep rallies, national tournaments, when you consider its roots. High school sports were initially instituted in the early 1900’s essentially to act as a distraction and protect young men from vices such as gambling, alchohol and prostitution. It succeeded in not only distracting boys, but in distracting entire towns, states, and the country. As college sports grew into the behemoth that it has become today, high school sports began to act as a feeder system, and this has resulted in widespread professionalization and commercialization. In a disturbing trend across North American high schools; music, art, shop class, vocational and technical classes etc. are all being cut. Yet it is taboo to even suggest getting rid of sports, despite that fact that in most cases it’s at least double the cost for a student to play football than to educate them in math. As school budget cuts increase, there has rarely been an inkling about reducing funding to sports programs.
The morality of associating the success of a school with the results of a group of children playing a game aside, the cost of high school sports and the conflict of interest alone should be enough to make most schools remove competitive sports all together. Schools are shelling out money for massive stadiums and gyms, state of the art training facilities and paying a salary to an army of coaches. They pay for their teams to travel across the country in chartered jets to prove they are the best at high school sports. Then there is the issue of where the focus of schools really lie. In football for example, schools start earlier (despite scientific evidence suggesting this is harmful), so kids can practice for 3 hours daily at a sport that has been linked to long-term brain damage. Classes are shut down for pep rallies, poor teachers are hired because they’re good coaches, entire school days are scheduled to facilitate sport. Sport has begun to dictate when and how our children learn and has no doubt negatively effected their learning environment. Advocates of high school sports suggest that it “saves” kids, but are you really saving a child by using sports to force him to show up and go through the motions in class, or would you be better of creating an environment that doesn’t require sports to make a child show up for school?
No sport is bigger in America than football, and nobody does high school football bigger than Texas (as seen by the photo above). Football is king in Texas and third next to family and religion (some would suggest it is religion). High school football in Texas is how towns identify themselves, and is their main source of pride. So when Premont high school shut down all of its sports programs, football included, there was thirst for blood. Students were enraged and some transferred, staff members quit and the community was outraged. In fact, people across the state raised $400 000 to save the football program. The results, however, were undeniable and staggering. In the first semester, 80 percent of students passed their classes (compared to 50 the year before), 160 people attended parent-teacher night (compared with 6 the year before), misbehaviour declined, class attendance increased, for the first time ever, the school had a healthy operating surplus and the $400 000 was used to renovate the science labs.
Along with Premont, there is hope. People are beginning to do things differently. Spielman College and “Basis” public charter schools have flipped the script. They have brought a sports mentality to learning, creating a competitive nurturing environment in the classroom that rewards actively participating and excelling in academics. There are sports, but rarely are they competitive. In the Basis schools there are no try outs for any of the sports team, anyone can join, and there is no tackle football.The play in alternative leagues outside the high school system, where there is less commitment and travel required. In Spielman, varsity teams were shut down and the money was used to provide programs and infrastructure that promote the wellness of the entire student population, not just the 3-4% that played sports. The results at Spielman are mixed, but generally trend positive, and the results for the Basis schools, well they speak for themselves. The average Basis student not only outperformed the typical American student by nearly three years in reading and science and by four years in math, but outscored the average student in Finland, South Korea Poland, and Shanghai, China, the region which ranks #1 in the world.
I’m not suggesting we run to our schools, sound the alarm and remove sports completely. There does, however, need to be more dialogue discussing the effects of how we conduct our schools. The stigma that the current state of high school sports is helping our students, at this point, is absurd. Our priorities have been manipulated by the commercialization of sport, and we have begun to prioritize sport over school in our places of learning. There isn’t necessarily a “right” answer, but we need to begin exploring different ways of doing things. You can’t institute positive change without discussion, exploration, and debate. To do this, a significant proportion of the North American population needs to open themselves up to the idea of possible change, however drastic it may be. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In America specifically, all the negative trends outlined in this blog will continue until someone has the gusto and the power to change the sport institution.
Ripley, A. (2013, October). The Case Against High School Sports. The Atlantic, pp. 1-17.