Education Opinion


By Nancy Flanagan — November 14, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last week, I was honored to serve on a discussion panel at a community forum around “Our Schools, Our Future.” It was a great evening for those who believe in civic engagement--a lively dialogue, citizens who clearly believe that people on the front lines have the best chance of solving our educational problems. Topics were pretty much what you’d expect--funding, testing, charter schools--and I found it heartening that the panel was generally in alignment on the big issues.

The last question from the audience surprised me, however. The questioner wanted to know whether we thought sports were given too much emphasis in schools. The first person to grab the mic made the standard stump speech on The Value of Sports. It’s a familiar set of talking points--you can probably already guess what he said:

Sports teach teamwork. Sports show kids how to win and lose. Sports are often the heart of community activity and build school spirit. Sports turn students into leaders in their future business careers. Kids stay in school because of sports.

I was surprised by the question only because it was even asked--so automatic and embedded are these ideas in American educational thinking. In fact, the speaker got a round of applause from the audience for saying them.

Here are some alternative ideas to consider:

Sports teach that competition--winning and losing--is the most important aspect of pursuing the good life in America. Sports teach aggression as an appropriate response to being challenged. Sports elevate compliance and authority over creativity and individuality. Sports are what you do to get positive attention in schools. School athletes become heroes for questionable reasons, leading them to a sense of entitlement. Athletic talent is prized and rewarded over other skills and gifts in school and community cultures.

Let me pause here and note that I’m 100% in favor of personal fitness, enjoyment of physical activity, working in teams, and friendly athletic games.

What I’m questioning is K-12 schools’ central role in promoting competitive sports. Public schools have become de facto comprehensive farm systems (for both stars and fans) for collegiate and professional athletics, which have nothing to do with education, but are 100% big business. Big ugly business, sometimes.

If you moved to America from another part of the world, you would be surprised to see that my local newspaper has a special section for sports, which is dominated, Monday-Friday, by high school athletics. High school sports get more space than national news, most days. And high school athletes get more mentions in the local press than National Merit Scholars.

Our French exchange student was dumfounded by the fact that our medium-sized high school had its own football stadium that seated thousands. (She was a little befuddled by what we called “football,” too--but that’s another story.) What really blew her away was the fact that every school in the district--elementary, middle, and high schools--had fully equipped gymnasiums. Elodie was an award-winning gymnast herself, but all of her training and competing happened outside of school, the European norm.

We hold special all-school assemblies to highlight school vs. school rivalries, which spin off into class vs. class competitions. I admit: I had lots of fun directing the band at pep assemblies. Still, you have to wonder: what’s the message we’re sending when “school spirit” is less about celebrating communal accomplishments than just more win-lose contests?

School districts, colleges and parents fund what they find important. The “pay to play” discussion happening around the country in these tough times doesn’t take into account huge existing tax-funded investments in facilities and equipment. Ironically, many schools have lost their arts programming precisely because the arts are taught by certified teachers--compared to separately financed athletic programs where parents have the option to fund-raise outside the salary schedule.

What happens when sports dominate school cultures? This. And this. And, of course--this.

But--what about the necessity of sports to keep kids in poverty from dropping out of school? A principal who leads an elementary school in Detroit told me they don’t bring athletes into their school any more for read-a-thons or special photo-ops. We don’t promote hero-worship for sports stars, she said. Our students irrationally believe that sports can be their ticket to fame and riches. Instead, we bring in nurses and firefighters and a man who started his own body shop.

We want to give our kids real goals.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP