Reading & Reacting: The Case Against High-School Sports

Image: Student at desk with incoming footbal

Image by Darren Braun at The Atlantic’s “The Case Against High-School Sports.”

By Amanda Ripley @ The Case Against High-School Sports

In another feature where Ripley teases her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, this piece form The Atlantic does ask an interesting question I have been pondering ever since I became an educator.

Here she sets up the central premise of her piece asking a question that is almost never asked, except maybe when budgets are at breaking points.

Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education. (The U.S. ranks 31st on the same international math test.) The challenges we do talk about are real ones, from undertrained teachers to entrenched poverty. But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?

Strictly from a financial perspective, schools will likely need to asking questions about sports expenditures, especially as things like the sequester look increasingly like life as normal and squeeze more money out of an already rising test-cost strained system. In some ways, I am amazed that the costs associated with high school athletic programs have not been under considerably more scrutiny. Add to that the growing body of data and research accumulating about concussions, particularly in a sports like football and hockey, it isa wonder school systems have not begun to bail on liability grounds.

Of course, the problem with an article like this is that it is easy to highlight problems, but a much more challenging thing to consider solutions. As interesting as an isolated example might be it certainly remains the exception and not the rule.

To her credit, Ripley does attempt to address the major cultural differences that have impacted how things have developed differently in the United States and other nations. Yet she falls pretty shy of what might be alternatives to how we do things in America, alternatives that might actually workable. This is something that even a few examples is far from revealing. There would be a major systemic and cultural shift required to make even minor changes to the existing system.

I have long thought that we might just have it all wrong, linking sports and school. I say that having played and then coached high school athletics for years, with full recognition of what a change might mean. There are a number of intangible things that sports can provide, which are a whole lot more difficult to measure. Whether that has a positive impact on school I think is debatable and not easily proven. Yet, to say there are no benefits would be silly. Also, silly is Ripley continual comparison of American students against students abroad, which is one of the flawed biases in her book

The real issue is whether it is worth the cost. However, this is a question that American always struggle to address, as we routinely mortgage our future in attempts to maintain the status quo. Plus, the emotional hold sports has on Americans is no way relinquishing its grip.

It is hard to imagine politicians arguing about sports expenditures in education funding. Methinks they would instantly recognize that as political suicide. People might not be inspired to vote for a new public works project, but would likely come out in droves to vote with their anger if their kids’ [insert most popular sports team here] was cut.

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