“A visitor entering an American high school would likely be confronted, first of all, with a trophy case. His examination of the trophies would reveal a curious fact: The gold and silver cups, with rare exception, symbolize victory in athletic contests not academic ones …. Altogether, the trophy case would suggest to the innocent visitor that he was entering an athletic club, not an educational institution.”(James Coleman, Sociologist 1961)
The above quote is center stage in an article in the October issue of “The Atlantic” magazine, penned by Amanda Ripley. This educator makes the case that football, in particular, is a menace to education.
Noting that the United States recently finished 31st on an international math test, she notes that the top five countries whose students excelled, have kids playing club sports in local towns, outside of school. She argues that with school districts slashing education budgets, it is worth re-evaluating whether the American sporting tradition needs to be revisited, and funds re-allocated. She argues that sports should be de-coupled from educational institutions. Should parents pony up for the costs of sports independent of school expenditures?
High school football is expensive, sometimes dangerous for the participants, and potentially distracting from a school’s goals of academic excellence. Ms. Ripley notes that many schools (nationwide) have a half dozen or more coaches, all of whom typically receive a stipend. Bleachers, artificial turf, even grass field maintenance, reconditioning helmets,etc. add costs to the sports. Some of the costs are insidious. When a teacher-coaches travel for game days (in larger states), schools have to hire substitute teachers. They also have to pay for the team, the band, and the cheerleaders, not to mention meals and hotels on the road. For home games there are the costs of hiring officials, providing security, painting the lines on the field, and clean-up.
Ms. Ripley also argues that the constant low-level distraction may be the greatest cost of all. The school focus shifts to the “games” and away from academics, and football players spend long and exhausting hours practicing (according to one study, about 15% of players will experience some type of brain injury) with academics suffering .
Local media glorifies sports and spends an inordinate amount of time reporting on local high school football. Athletes and coaches are treated like gods. Contrast this attention to that given to the academic scholar where nary an inch of print space or airtime nets the outstanding member of the student council any recognition.
Imagine what would happen if we transferred our obsessive intensity about high school sports to rankings for high school academic accomplishment.
Last week the results of another study found U.S. schools to be mediocre compared to the rest of the world, notwithstanding the expenditure of money: nearly double that of the top 20 countries. The United States scores were below those of the top 20, and were listed as 21st in science. Even the top students in the U.S are behind, by as much as two years, compared to Shanghai students.
It’s easy to shrug off the issue Ms. Ripley has raised and resort to bromides about how sports build character, teamwork, etc. Yet, wouldn’t this also be accomplished by local sponsorship? When this country is facing the fact that students in South Korea have a 93% graduation rate and we have just 77% with only 2% of those graduates receiving academic scholarships to college, it is well beyond time to revisit the efficacy of in-school sports programs. Shall we begin the discussion?