Education Opinion


By Nancy Flanagan — November 14, 2011 3 min read
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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.