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What Would Schools Look Like Without Sports?

Sports have a tremendous influence on the school environment

By Todd Stanley

girls playing volleyballIf you walk into nearly any public high school in the United States you will see the influence that sports have on the school environment. This may be in the trophy case that sits at the front of the school. It might be the posters encouraging athletes to achieve great things against a rival. It could be the pep rally the school holds to encourage and inspire the athletes. Or the press showing up to document the signing of an athlete to a college commitment. Just listening to the announcements, the content is rife with the accomplishments of the sports teams and the athletes that participate.

Conversely, you will not find as large a trophy case for academic accomplishments. Nor are there posters and pep rallies encouraging the improvement of academic achievement. Rarely is there announcement espousing a high ACT score, or is the press clamoring over doing a story on the student who gets into a prestigious Ivy League school.

When schools were first created in the United States, it was based on the idea that all children needed to be educated. They were taught skills that were thought to be needed such as reading, being able to compute math problems, and become better citizens. Academics was the primary focus of schools as that is why they were created. But something has changed. Schools certainly still care about academics. They still want children to possess skills that will enable them to survive in the world after leaving school. Schools hire teachers with the understanding that they will teach our children in the area of academics. But it seems school and the community care a whole lot more about athletics.

science student with periodic tableJust go to any high school football game on a Friday night. There is always a crowd, not all which are parents and students but community members as well, a lot of enthusiasm as evidenced through the noise level, and cheerleading squads and bands which support the teams. Now go into a classroom and measure the level of enthusiasm of those in attendance. It is almost passive. Where is the pep rally for the academic bowl team? Where are the posters supporting the chess members? Do community members turn out to watch the robotics crew compete?  

Other countries, many which are scoring much higher than the United States in international testing, do not have school sports. Sports are run through clubs or through the city athletic association. Schools are left to focus on what schools were created for in the first place, to educate children.

school gymImagine a school system where 100 percent of the focus is on the education of children. All resources would funnel toward this goal and all of the parent involvement would have to do with academics. Where every hire is to find the best person to teach that content area, not who can perform double duty as teacher and coach. How much movement would occur at that school in regard to achievement?

Research has shown that high school students would benefit from having a later starting time. They would get more sleep which would translate into them paying attention more and being more alert to the lesson at hand. Of course, the impediment to this ever happening is the fact that it would run into sports which take place in the late afternoon. You could not have a school starting at 10 AM and getting out at 5 PM. There would be no time to get teams to away competitions.

A young student with a microscopeOne could easily make the argument that sports teach our children very valuable skills. Leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving are just a few of many benefits of participating in a sport. There is certainly value in sports. The problem comes when sports becomes more valued than the academics – when the focus of schools becomes more about sports than education.

I would say this tipping point has occurred. You see it all the time when a district puts all its efforts toward building a new football stadium when the schools could use a paint job themselves. You see it when a parent calls the school and requests their child be held back a grade because then their child would be bigger than the other kids on the sports field. You see it in families who move to certain areas not because the school has proven itself to be a great place for students to learn, but rather because they offer a chance to excel in sports. Why is this?

high school graduates studentsIt is because there is too much opportunity in sports. Sports can lead to college scholarships. That is all fine and dandy if the student were using this chance to get a degree to lead to bigger and better things. The problem is that colleges are just as guilty if not more so in perpetuating the sports racket. When college football has become the minor leagues of the NFL and hot basketball players rarely last longer than two years in school before going into the NBA draft, college sports is big business. It brings in billions of dollars a year to universities as their sports are nationally televised and have corporate sponsors.

Not only that, it allows a student who maybe was not the strongest academically to have opportunities through professional sports. Although the chances are slim becoming a professional athlete, that carrot drives a lot of children and parents. Lebron James is a very intelligent and hard-working individual. Without basketball though would he have been as much a success or even a little bit? Would Tom Brady have been a successful adult using only his Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies instead of leading the New England Patriots to several Super Bowls?

Keep in mind, this does not come from someone who is anti-sports and resents them. My daughter plays high school sports and I was a coach for schools for over 15 years. All I am saying is maybe we need to put the responsibility of sports onto some student with trophiesother entity. Take it off of the school’s plate and onto someone else’s. The schools have enough to worry about educating the masses of their community. As a gifted coordinator who fosters the academic potentials of young children, I would like to see more emphasis put on academic success so that the students who are not athletically inclined are recognized for their achievements.

What if that trophy case in the front of the school contained the best AP scores or displayed artwork by gifted artists? What if the banners hanging around the school trumpeted the accomplishment of the Destination Imagination team? What if the school announcements bragged about highest scoring students in each class instead of the highest scoring player on the basketball team?

Of course, for schools to abandon sports, all school districts collectively would have to make this decision. Otherwise, people would simply move to another district where their child could play sports. Until something drastic changes, I think I will have to watch as our school systems more and more shift their focus toward sports.  

Further Reading
  1. The Rhode Show – Teaching children sportsmanship
  2. The Journal – Anti-bullying program kicks off at park
  3. The News Courier – Brennan’s touchdown shows how important sports can be
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