To a lot of people in the world, that is a really strange statement. Allow me to explain.
The average course schedule of an American high school student includes math, science, history, English, a foreign language, and some type of fine arts class. There is also a slew of elective courses available…yearbook, photography, computer programming, metal working, wood shop, business, film, student government, etc. A student that is counseled correctly and attends a relatively well-funded high school has the opportunity to experience a very well-rounded education. The idea is that 14-18 year old kids have no idea what they want to do or what they need to do. So, our goal should be to expose them to a variety of subjects and learning opportunities; to give them a broad base of knowledge and ignite a passion within that hopefully blossoms into a future course of study or a future career.
So, if that is the case, why do American teenagers spend so much time playing sports? Why are so many resources devoted to fields and uniforms and equipment and coaches’ salaries? Why are sports woven into the fabric of our educational institutions?
Before we answer that, let me just give you a quick run down of the athletic department at my current school. I preface this by saying that I have not done extensive research on every school in America, but I have been at three different high schools and these statistics seem pretty typical.
Let’s start with a typical athletic experience. We have 520 students in our school. About 66% of these students participate in an at least one sport per year. About 33% participate in more than one sport. A varsity athlete will miss approximately 1-2 hours of instructional time per week in order tot ravel to and from competition. A junior varsity athlete (whose games tend to start earlier in the day) may miss upwards of 3 hours of instructional time per week. Practices range from 1 1/2 to 2 hours a day. Sometimes practices start immediately after school, but depending on available facilities and the flexibility of the coach’s schedule, many teams do not start practice until 5 or even 7pm. Most teams, football being the exception, have 2 or 3 contests per week that, again depending on the sport, range from 2 to 2 1/2 hours. All in all, when you consider travel, competition, and practice time (which often includes weekends), students spend about 15-20 hours per week on athletics. (If we still believe in the American ideal of the 40-hour work week, this seems a bit excessive, especially considering that less than 3% of high school athletes will play a sport at the collegiate level and the fact that these kids still have to attend classes, complete homework assignments, write college essays, spend time with their families, and actually have some kind of social life).
Next, let’s look at the state of our athletic department. We offer 19 sports. We have 4 full time employees within the athletic department. We have 55 part time employees within the department. The department budget is 15-20% of the overall budget of the school. Over 2/3 of our facility is devoted to courts and fields and weight rooms and bleachers. Each of these has to be managed, maintained, mowed, prepped, and cleaned by our maintenance staff. I cannot accurately asses how much of our institutional carbon footprint is dominated by athletic facility needs…fuel for buses and lawn mowers, water for fields, mountains of trash created at events, etc.
So, back to our original question…Why in the world do we do this? Why do we spend such a large percentage of our time, our resources, and our human capital on sports? Is that the best use of those valuable commodities? Why are sports woven into the fabric of our educational institutions? The fact is that every other country in the world has figured out a different model. Kids still play sports, but they do not play sports at school. They compete, but not as part of their educational experience.
I have to be honest, when I assess the resources allocated to athletics, the statistics do seem out of balance…especially considering that almost every school in America is short on funding for math, science, and the arts. Yet…the football team still has uniforms.
But, we are missing a bigger piece of the story. Let’s go back to our original assertion about the purpose of education. If our only goal is to expose our students to a wide array of subjects and situations in order to ignite passion that hopefully leas them to a future career, then I think we are missing a most important function of American schools.
If our only goal is to foster academic maturity, we should advocate online school and home-based curriculums. It is certainly more efficient and more cost effective at producing at least the same academic results.
But I think our goals should be broader. I think our goal should be the education of the whole student…mentally, socially, emotionally, and physically (I also happen to believe that “Spiritually” belongs in this list, but that capability obviously depends on the type of school in which we work). So, if that is our goal. If, we actually believe that American schools are tools for socialization. If we actually value the concept that graduates know how to carry on a face to face conversation, overcome a difficult personality, or work as a team. If we actually believe that a commitment to activity and physical fitness will lead to a higher quality of life. If, we actually think that failure sometimes drives us to succeed. If we actually think that we need to have control of our emotions, even in the most stressful situations….
If all of this is true, then I would argue that any educational experience that does not include athletics is incomplete.
Sports teach kids how to think, how to work together, how to serve others, how to deal with failure, and how to overcome adversity. Sports teach kids how to deal with authority. Sports teach kids how to check their emotions and perform in the face of pressure.
I love academics. I love to read. I love to discuss and debate. I love to learn. But, there are some things that are better learned on courts than in classrooms. There are some things better learned with balls than with books.
That is the reason that sports are so woven into our educational culture. We have decided, as a society, that the values taught by athletics are important in the development of our youth. We have decided that it is worth the investment of time and resources. We have decided that the social, emotional, and physical development of our youth warrant the investment in staff and facilities. Athletics are a piece of the educational experience. And, I would argue that the value of sport is on par with the value of science or math or language. It is all important in the development of the next generation.
So, with all that said, I once again state confidently that I work in sports (Win With The Pass) because I am an educator.