Education Opinion

Athletics vs. Academics

By Henry F. Cotton — February 01, 1996 7 min read

Theodore Sizer ignores it, though more educational compromises are made in its name in one school year than his fictional Horace will make in his career. The late Ernest Boyer did not mention it in his Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching report High School. Albert Shanker, in his numerous polemics about standards and international comparisons, avoids any consideration of it. Neither Chester Finn Jr. nor Denis Doyle writes a line about it. From A Nation at Risk to Prisoners of Time, not one major reform document refers to it. William Bennett, who has left few educational stones unturned, is rock solid for it. Governors, legislators, and even those who want to be known as “education presidents’’ are silent on the subject. Yet, interscholastic athletics--there, I said it--interscholastic athletics, that most holy of sacred cows, may well be the single largest impediment to educational improvement in the American school system.

Let’s leave aside the traditional compendium of horror stories about abusive coaches, excessive injuries, parent fanaticism, intrusive recruiters, “no pass/no play’’ grade manipulation, and all the other well-documented excesses that are traditionally passed off as “isolated instances’’ and concentrate solely on the negative effects of the interscholastic athletic program on the educational mission of the school.

As a rule of thumb, a high school of 800-plus students will have about a third of its faculty involved in coaching sports, though a few have less and more than a few have more. Some of these will be teachers who coach, but a large number, particularly those involved with football, basketball, or other locally high-profile sports, will be coaches who teach. These last are not difficult to find in the typical high school. They are the ones called “Coach’’ by students and faculty alike, both inside and outside the school. Some years ago, you would find them primarily in the physical education department, where on average they did little harm. But the rapid growth of interscholastic sports for both boys and girls in the last two decades has made it much more difficult for schools to hide these folks. They now show up regularly as about 50 percent of social studies departments or as teachers of the soft sciences, such as earth science or general science, where the harm can be considerable. Not to blame these people; they know and the school knows why they were hired and what they are valued for, and it’s not classroom teaching. Even when they have some preparation in the subjects they are assigned or have a talent for teaching, their time commitment and their reputations are based on other values. This is not difficult to understand in an environment that places far more value on winning seasons than it does on academic achievement.

“Time on task’’ is one of the favorite suggested remedies of reformers. Benjamin Bloom’s studies at the University of Chicago indicate that time might well be the most important consideration for those interested in consistent educational improvement. Suggestions for longer school years and longer school days pop up in state legislatures almost as regularly as proposals for property-tax reform. The previously mentioned report by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, Prisoners of Time, calls for considerably more time to be spent on academic studies. Modular schedules, block schedules, and any number of other “innovative’’ schedules have been suggested or implemented in attempts to provide a remedy for the “time’’ problem. Not one that I have heard of has come within the proverbial 10-foot pole of cutting into athletic practice time. Only the lack of gym space or field availability suffices as reason for limiting coaches’ access to their athletes.

In most American schools, academic subjects get some part of an hour five days a week. A generous time allotment would be around 250 minutes per week per subject. Athletic practices in the majority of high schools average two and a half hours a day excepting game days, when the time commitment is closer to four hours. Assuming some combination of four practices and two games per week or five practices and one game, athletics is given more than three times the time commitment that English or mathematics is allotted. It is not then by accident that our children are better at basketball than they are at spelling.

There are other, more subtle, thieves of time associated with the athletic program. Pep rallies, more often than not held during the school day, cancel out classes so that the cheerleaders, pompon girls, and bands can perform their roles in the athletic ritual and the coach or overexuberant principal can exhort the student body, in the name of school spirit, to give up whatever else they might have been considering and show up at the game. Little or no thought is given to the fact that the game might be competing with time that some naive academic teacher thought might be spent on homework. Early release for travel to away games, watching game films during study periods, and, in some states, actual periods for practice scheduled during the school day are other interesting activities sanctioned by the school that put what should be secondary considerations ahead of what ought to be the primary purpose of schooling.

Athletics are privileged in American schools. If you have any doubts left about that, simply count the number of assistant coaches a head coach of a major sport has and how many athletes he or she is responsible for. One of two things usually happens when the numbers reach about 30: An assistant coach is added to the program or a number of youngsters are cut from the team. Compare that with the English teacher who gets no assistance at any number and who is not allowed to cut.

Any high school principal who has been at it for a couple of years, even a certified member of the old jocks’ club, as so many are, will admit, off the record, that far too much of his or her time is spent coping with problems associated with the athletic program. Eligibility controversies, behavior before, during, and after games, league meetings, booster meetings, pressure to make one kind of exception or another for prima donna athletes or coaches, cheerleaders’ mothers and second-stringers’ fathers, sports award dinners, and sportswriters all demand and get time. Time that might be better employed evaluating and improving instruction. On the record, most principals will usually employ the same tired messages about school spirit, preparation for life, and character-building that lost any real meaning they had around the last time a football coach let a quarterback call an important play. All the reform rhetoric about the “principal as instructional leader’’ is meaningless in the face of the reality of their calendars. Those poor few souls who try to give some sense of equity to the academic program by awarding “academic letters’’ or holding “academic pep assemblies’’ do little but reinforce the embarrassing reality of who and what are really important in their schools.

Terry Deal, Seymour Sarason, and others who have written about the culture of the school have missed the dominant culture. It is a culture driven by America’s obsession with sports personalities and team loyalties. “Dream Teams,’' “Super Bowls,’' “Wild Cards,’' “Neon Deion,’' and “Final Fours’’ create an environment in which a quarterback who continues to play after four concussions is considered heroic rather than stupid and where universities sanction cheating in the athletic department, if not in the classroom. Students emulate, honor, and dress in the regalia of these overinflated hucksters and accept the value system that comes with it. The school provides the arena in which they can act out that value system.

Common among most would-be reformers of the schools is the reality that they have not spent much time in the schools. Their conclusions are based primarily on test data or other forms of quantifiable information. They report on results rather than causes and when pressed for explanations engage in bashing the “educational establishment,’' the teachers, or their preparation. Schools, they would find should they make more than the obligatory three-day visit, reflect the values of the majority culture, which is primarily a pro-athletic, pro-entertainment constituency.

Perhaps Thucydides described it best when he wrote: “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.’' If we are to change our schools, we will need to change what is honored there. For that to happen, schools will have to spend more of their time and energy on education and less of their time and energy on entertainment.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Athletics vs. Academics