Cover Photo Credit: Johnny Dee
What follows is a thought experiment more than a serious proposal, but I think it’s worth thinking about if only to help us recalibrate the role of sports in our schools and in our lives in general. I fully understand the depth to which athletics are embedded in our education system and the difficulties and blowback an attempt to uproot them would cause. All I ask is what I ask of my students every day: just think about it with an open mind subject to reason.
Is it time in America to separate sports from education? The Beach Boys’ admonition to “be true to your school” aside, what do the two actually have to do with one another? Setting aside the infrastructure that’s already in place under the aegis of school districts, why not move to a continental European academy or club model for young people interested in participating in sports?
I say if the best arguments against such a divorce is that it has always been done that way and it would be too difficult to change, those are poor reasons for sports and education to stay married. I’d like to suggest that it might be time to break up for the sake of the kids.
The fact-of-the-matter is that, for many high school athletes, school-sponsored sports participation is already secondary in importance to their membership in private club teams. Such organizations as AAU basketball, JO volleyball, NCA cheerleading, and travel baseball teams often rank higher in terms of importance and devotion for young athletes than their school’s team. In tennis, it’s not unusual for the very best players to skip the high school team entirely, preferring to compete in USTA-level tournaments where the competition is much stronger. The same is true for elite hockey players as well, who, if good enough, play in the juniors. As indicated in the chart below, there is a deemphasis being placed on sports participation, in general, by young people themselves.
The hiring of coaches for scholastic sports teams has already experienced a necessary change. An increasing number of lay coaches are serving in both head and assistant coaching positions on middle school and high school teams. Oftentimes, these lay coaches only step up to coach when one of the their own children is a member of the team. More-often-than-not, their devotion to the program and other parents’ children ends the second their child’s eligibility expires. In addition, many student-athletes receive additional instruction by private coaches, which, at times, is at odds with the coaching they are receiving from the team’s coaching staff.
Long gone are the days when schools could afford to hire quasi-teachers to serve primarily as coaches. A move to which I say, “Amen.” The quality of instruction offered to the student body at-large should never be sacrificed in order to fill coaching positions or to possibly win a few more games. With the advent of statewide testing and academic report cards, no school district can afford to have dead zones in their curriculum maps in which coaches read newspapers with their feet propped up on the desk while students are tasked with reading independently, completing meaningless worksheets, or watching movie after movie.
In recent years and with great consternation, I have watched a number of promising young educators resign from coaching positions due to the excessive expectation of a nearly year round commitment to their sport. Added to the ever-increasing demands in the classroom, a rigorous teacher evaluation system, and their familial commitments, they just do not have the time to perform as skilled teachers and engaged parents while also committing an exorbitant number of hours to coaching for what is paltry remuneration when broken down into hourly pay.
Collegiately, the notion of the student-athlete is a near-absurdity beyond the Division III level. Even there, once you move beyond the high academic schools, many college athletes will readily admit that they are on-campus merely to play their sport of choice — the love of which they have yet to exorcise from their system, for the addiction to the adulation showered upon a high school sports hero is a strong one. If these athlete-students somehow do manage to earn a degree without accruing a disabling amount of debt, that’s great, but I’d have to believe it is often more by hook and by crook than by honest scholarly devotion, and I doubt if many have distinguished themselves academically in a manner that will make them especially marketable in highly-competitive and financially-rewarding fields.
Just think, if school districts were not required to pay athletic directors and coaching stipends, to pay the cost of game officials, to pay to outfit the ever-growing number of teams, to pay for the upkeep of facilities, to pay transportation costs, and the list goes on, how those monies could be spent on what are truly educational pursuits that benefit the entire student body, not just those who choose to participate in sports. For the fact is that very few schools – high school or collegiate – can cover the operations costs of their athletic departments from gate receipts.
Not for a second am I underestimating the value of sports or suggesting an end to them. I love sports. I played and coached several of them and vigorously-encouraged my children to play them as well. Therefore, I’ve experienced firsthand the lessons they teach and the positive impact they can have on young people. I’m just questioning whether they need to be affiliated with education.
If sports are considered essential and of certain value to young people, why are they not made mandatory like math, science, and English? If sports are truly a vital part of a child’s schooling, why are all practices and games held outside of the school day? If sports are so important, why do we take them away when a student is failing academically, but we don’t take academics away from a student who is a failure at sports?
If athletics are truly central to the well-being of our youth, plentiful would be the number of community members and organizations who would step up to organize the appropriate teams and leagues outside of the oversight of school districts, thereby continuing to provide the experiences and lessons gleaned from participation in sports that we deem so valuable. If not, then perhaps, we have been overestimating the importance of athletics all along.
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