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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Sports Good or Bad for Schools?

By Peter DeWitt — October 02, 2013 4 min read
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As an elementary school principal you would think that sports do not have a large impact on what we do during the day, but they do. Students play kickball and two-hand touch football out at recess, and treat those games as though they are playing in the World Series or the Super Bowl. Some of the games get a bit out of control and we end up talking about good sportsmanship.

I love recess. There is a great deal of research on the necessity of recess. I’m not a fan of taking it away for disciplinary reasons and believe that all students should be outside for at least 30 minutes a day. Getting fresh air in all sorts of weather can offer students a much needed brain break.

But what happens when student academics takes a back seat to our fascination with sports?

Recently, I read The Case Against High-School Sports by Amanda Ripley. Ripley is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World - And How They Got That Way. In the article Ripley tells the story of Premont Independent School District in Texas. The state was threatening to shut them down for financial mismanagement.

According to Ripley,

“To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs, which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and baseball teams each year.”

So...Superintendent Ernest Singleton suspended the program to focus on academics and save money. Ripley wrote,

“That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz 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.”

Read the rest of the article here. It is well worth the time and effort because Ripley delves into how the nation’s fascination with sports trickles down and may be one of the major factors why students do not perform well against their international peers. Yes, I know that poverty is a factor, but she has some very valid points.

Empowering Girls Through Sports

At a very young age, around the U.S. there are children who play year-round sports (softball, soccer, etc.). There are kids who play on travel teams that take them around the state or across stateliness. There is nothing wrong with it, unless the kids are under too much pressure to become the next Tiger Woods, or to Ripley’s point, the sports programs take a front seat to academics. Hopefully, they also get time to play on their own and their lives are not enveloped by an organized sport.

In other parts of the world, sports are being used to empower young people. Too many kids living in poverty in other countries do not get an opportunity to play a sport, so the United Nations, along with the State Department are trying to do something about it. On the State Department’s website, the following information was provided.

“The U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls through Sports Initiative aims to increase the number of women and girls involved in sports around the world. According to the United Nations, when girls participate in sports they are more likely to attend school and participate in society. When women and girls can walk on the playing field, they are more likely to step into the classroom, the boardroom, and step out as leaders in society.”

The website information goes on to say,

“Building on the lessons of Title IX global--of opportunity and equality--this initiative is compromised of three pillars: the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program; Sports Envoys; and Sports Visitors. These programs build on the United States global commitment to advance the rights and participation of women and girls around the world.”

Read more about the programs here.

In the End

Perhaps the issue isn’t about playing sports, but it’s more about why kids are playing sports. If they are playing a sport so they can exercise and find something they can play throughout life, then they are playing for the right reasons. However, if they are playing because they, or their parents, believe they will be the next big thing in professional sports, they should take a step back and reflect.

Getting sports scholarships to college, or having something that makes a student well-rounded, which will give them a competitive edge to get into college is a good thing, but it should not be the only thing. A very small percentage of students go from collegiate athlete to professional athlete, and if academics were the top priority from a very young age, they would be focused on that priority by the time they get to college.

Sports should not be the number one priority of a school...academics should be in that number one slot.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.