Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Bizarre Disdain for High School Sports

By Rick Hess — March 18, 2019 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I found a lot of things peculiar about the reactions to last week’s nauseating pay-for-admissions scandal, but I suspect readers have already tired of the subject (if you’re curious about my take, you can find it here or here). But the one thing I do want to touch upon today is the weird way that evidence of corrupt college coaches, sleazoid middlemen, and asleep-at-the-switch admissions offices fueled broadsides fulminating generally at scholastic sports—as if millions of high school athletes and thousands of coaches are implicated by the malfeasance of coaches and staff busy raking in bribes at elite colleges.

This all felt remarkably familiar. High school sports, for reasons that utterly escape me, have become a frequent target. As Amy Cummings and I put it in a column at National Review last month:

School sports have served as a convenient punching bag for advocates and academics who tend to regard athletics as a cultural backwater. Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the "social change" organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, has made "The Case against High-School Sports" in The Atlantic, blaming sports for mediocre U.S. performance on international tests. And Brookings Institution education scholar Mike Hansen has lamented that sports are "distracting us from our schools' main goals."

Meanwhile, for more than a few progressives, sports seemingly represent toxic masculinity, problematic notions of competition, and gender segregation.

Amidst such critiques, the manifold benefits of school sports can easily get lost. Especially strange is the short shrift given to the role that athletics can play when it comes to supporting academic success and forging character. That presumably has something to do with why the National Federation of State High School Associations reports that more than half of high schoolers participated in school sports in 2015, up from 40 percent in 1980.

If you’re used to negative portrayals of school sports, you may be wondering about this casual assertion of manifold benefits. “Do you have any evidence for this claim?” some may ask. Well, a quick perusal of some of the most widely cited studies on high school sports tells a pretty compelling story.

As Cummings and I wrote:

Despite assertions that sports distract from academics, there's evidence that they can just as readily complement the scholastic mission of schools. A widely cited 2003 study by Oxford University's Herbert Marsh and the University of Sydney's Sabina Kleitman in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology reported, using nationally representative longitudinal data, that participating in high-school sports had a positive effect on academics in high school and college. Students who played high-school sports got better grades, selected more challenging courses, had higher educational and occupational aspirations, were more likely to enroll in college, and had higher levels of educational attainment. What's more, these results held up across socioeconomic status, gender, race, and ability. A decade ago, in the Economics of Education Review, Mathematica's Stephen Lipscomb used a fixed-effects strategy to test whether participating in high-school sports affected academic performance. He found that sports participation associated with a 2 percent increase in math and science test scores and a 5 percent increase in bachelor's-degree attainment expectations. Other scholarship has reported that participating in high-school sports significantly reduces a student's likelihood of dropping out of high school and, for young women, that it is associated with higher odds of college completion.

The point is not to make outrageous claims on behalf of school sports. These studies all have methodological limitations, researchers have devoted less energy to examining sports than one would think, and we should not treat the results as gospel. Meanwhile, some benefits are due to self-selection, poorly run programs can breed destructive behavior, and there are times and places when sports can clash with a school’s academic mission. None of these cautions, however, should excuse the pooh-poohing of school sports by zealots, agenda-driven advocates, or journalists peddling salacious tales.

The enthusiastic embrace of social and emotional learning we see today makes it an especially odd time to see disdain visited upon school sports—when athletics boast a long and impressive track record of cultivating just those things. If educators and reformers are seeking ways to promote values such as self-control, responsibility, and good citizenship, they should ignore the snark and keep in mind that high schools already house established programs with a track record of doing just that.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.


Events

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.
Sponsor
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.
Sponsor
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