The place of sports in high schools is an issue guaranteed to generate more heat than light (“The Case Against High-School Sports,” The Atlantic, Oct.). The debate essentially comes down to whether they are an anachronism in today’s accountability movement.
The usual argument in their favor is that they keep students who might otherwise drop out in school. They also help build school pride in neighborhoods where positive models are in short supply. There is truth to both claims. But I wonder if we don’t pay an unexamined price for high school sports. I’m referring now not only to the pecuniary cost of maintaining such programs but also to the academic cost. When I was teaching English, football and baseball seasons meant that team members were excused from their classes on the days of the game in order to play. (Since basketball games were played in the evening, team members were expected to attend classes.) These students were not the only ones affected. The games also distracted other students from ongoing lessons.
It’s important at this point to distinguish between sports and physical education. Although they overlap, they are not synonymous. If one of the goals of high school is to create lifelong learners, I think a far stronger case can be made for the latter than for the former. When taught properly, physical education gives students a foundation for maintaining a healthy lifestyle long after graduation. Sports are more limited in this regard because of the pressure to produce winners at all costs - both physical and psychological. I understand the value of teamwork and the importance of discipline, which athletes pride themselves on. But in the final analysis, I come down on the side of physical education.
I realize that sports in some parts of the country are a cherished tradition. Whether this rationale will overcome pressure to produce evidence of academic achievement is problematic. I still think that an engaging curriculum and charismatic teachers are more important than sports in achieving that goal.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.