I was flying to Chicago a couple of weeks ago when The Atlantic magazine caught my eye at the airport newsstand. “How Sports Are Ruining High School,” the cover said.
I bought the magazine, but didn’t get around to reading Amanda Ripley’s story until this week. In the meantime, while I was home visiting family and friends in the Chicago suburbs, I happened upon an afternoon practice of the football team at my old high school.
The Hilltoppers of Glenbard West High School, in Glen Ellyn, Ill., were 4-1 at the time, and are now 6-1 as they try to repeat as Class 7A state champions.
High school football is a pretty big deal in Illinois, but only when I moved to suburban Dallas to work on a newspaper did I learn how big high school football could really be. Arlington, Texas, wasn’t quite the small-city landscape of Odessa, Texas, and Friday Night Lights fame, but it had huge stadiums, TV coverage, and quarterbacks who I think charged for their autographs. (OK, not really for that last one.)
Ripley, who has been everywhere lately, with her new book The Smartest Kids in the World and a recent story in Time magazine on the common core, spends a good bit of her Atlantic piece on the Premont Independent School District in Texas. Faced with a state shutdown over financial mismanagement and academic failure, the new superintendent of the small town, one high school district last year suspended all sports, including football.
“Last fall at Premont, the first without football, was quiet—eerily so,” Ripley writes. “There were no Friday-night games to look forward to, no players and their parents cheered onto the field on opening night, no cheerleaders making signs in the hallway, no football practice 10 or more hours a week.”
In the first semester without football, “80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall,” the story said. “About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. [The high school principal] was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed.”
Ripley’s thesis is that high school sports are more costly than anyone realizes, and the nation’s emphasis on such activities is misplaced when U.S. schools are mired in “international mediocrity in education.”
“Imagine, for a moment, if Americans transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports—the rankings, the trophies, the ceremonies, the pride—to high-school academics,” Ripley writes. “We would look not so different from South Korea, or Japan, or any of a handful of Asian countries whose hypercompetitive, pressure-cooker approach to academics in many ways mirrors the American approach to sports. Both approaches can be dysfunctional; both set kids up for stress and disappointment. The difference is that 93 percent of South Korean students graduate from high school, compared with just 77 percent of American students—only about 2 percent of whom receive athletic scholarships to college.”
(Ripley’s article is reminiscent of a 2011 piece in The Atlantic by the historian Taylor Branch on “The Shame of College Sports.” That story has evolved into a new documentary on the Epix channel called “Schooled: The Price of College Sports.”)
For the substance of the change Ripley is calling for, I’m not convinced. But it’s a provocative article, and any high school football coach who takes the time to read it will probably spit up his Gatorade.
So, go Glenbard West Hilltoppers! Keep winning those state championships before the opportunity goes away.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.