Team Players

By Kerry A. White — February 24, 1999 14 min read

Foul. That’s how historians sum up high school sports in the early 1900s, when students, outsiders, and above all, chaos, governed the games. Before school officials took control, competition was virtually unstructured. There were few eligibility requirements for players, inadequate rules to ensure fair play, and scant or no precautions taken to safeguard athletes.

Nothing barred coaches--often school alumni or students from nearby colleges--from playing on the teams they coached, and no rules stopped outsiders, including older, paid athletes, from joining in especially fierce competitions. With few safety measures in place, thousands of preventable injuries and numerous deaths befell high school athletes each year.

“In the first decade of this century, there were some very, very unsavory things going on in high school sports,” says Dick Kishpaugh, a sports historian and author in Parchment, Mich.

“Though teams used school names as if they represented their high schools, schools didn’t set policy, players did. ... Serious injuries were common, gamblers arranged games,” and shady recruiting practices were the norm, Kishpaugh says.

Football was especially popular, and brutal, at the turn of the century. Mass formations, gang tackling, and spearing--using the top of the head to plow into opponents--were mainstays of the game.

By about 1910, as enthusiasm for both participating in and watching organized sports was growing, so were problems associated with competition. Around that time, school sports had gotten so out of control, so dangerous and embarrassing, Kishpaugh says, that “schools realized they had to get in on the act.”

Principals began to issue game rules. They improved safety by barring unnecessarily risky plays, required athletes to wear safety equipment, and mandated that players be bona fide students. They began to set guidelines for recruiting players and rules to prevent players from shopping for schools. And for the first time, principals began questioning the prevailing win-at-all-costs mentality of sports and contemplating athletics’ educational mission.

“Everybody but the schools had been running high school sports, and though colleges had gotten serious about sports--the [National Collegiate Athletic Association] was established in 1906--high schools didn’t follow until some time later,” says Joan S. Hult, a professor emeritus and sports historian at the University of Maryland College Park. “But going into the 1920s, principals began saying, ‘If we’re going to run this world, let’s make it educational.’ ”

Yet, even as schools began to clean up their sports programs and formalize interscholastic competition, complications persisted because school rules and philosophies weren’t always in sync. Principals began to organize local associations that rallied around agreed-upon policies and principles. But soon, as teams began to travel greater distances for games, competition hitches arose from disparate rules and regulations.

To further standardize high school sports, whole states began to form athletic associations, which in 1923 organized under the newly established National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations. Today, as the National Federation of State High School Associations, the organization guides high school athletic programs and co-curricular activities in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Once the states began to organize school sports and the federation was formed, interscholastic sports became an institution, as much a part of the American school experience as reading, writing, and arithmetic. School sports also became a centerpiece--and in many regions, the sole rallying force--of small towns and communities. Team mascots were chosen, and whole new clubs and activities--booster clubs, marching bands, cheerleading squads--formed to support and salute high school teams.

High school sports grew so strong over the years that losing streaks, occasional scandals, wars, even the Great Depression could not shake fans’ allegiance. Just around the time that lights first came to high school gridirons and baseball diamonds, in fact, the Depression hit. But in many places, souring economic times had little effect on gate receipts: High school football, basketball, and baseball games, like the Hollywood movies of that era, were among the nation’s remaining affordable diversions. Interschool rivalries gave locals something to cheer or grouse about unrelated to their financial woes.

“Most schools maintained a pretty good audience from the 1920s on,” Kishpaugh says. “For cheap entertainment during the Depression, you couldn’t beat [high school] games or the movies.”

That’s not to say that budgets weren’t tight. High school sports, like just about everything else, faced deep cuts through the Depression and World War II. Some competition, especially games that involved extensive travel, was trimmed back; other games were suspended altogether.

But loyalty toward high school teams, especially in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field, was basically unwavering. In most small towns, those sports dominated small talk, and winning teams have been glorified to this day. Sports came to define schools to the public, overshadowing all other activities, academics included.

In his 1941-42 study of young people in a typical Midwestern town, Elmtown’s Youth, the sociologist August B. Hollingshead wrote: “Extracurricular activities without spectator appeal or broad public relations value, such as girls’ athletics, student government, and departmental clubs, receive little active support from the [school] board or community. ...There is far more public interest in the football and basketball teams than in all other high school activities combined. The team has come to be a collective representation of the high school to a large segment of the community. Business, professional, and working men not only expect but also demand ... winning teams.”

Most school administrators would agree--and many lament--that such an observation rings true more than half a century later.

“A great football or basketball season can completely excite a community, almost to the point of hysteria,” says Gene Buinger, who has served as a coach, teacher, and school administrator in several sports-crazed districts and today is the superintendent of the Bibb County, Ga., system, which includes Macon. Before taking his post there, Buinger was the superintendent of schools in Odessa, Texas, the town featured, rather harshly, in H.G. Bissinger’s best-selling book on the Permian High School football team’s 1988 season, Friday Night Lights.

“In a small town, where there are no professional sports teams, people’s allegiance has tended toward their high school teams,” Buinger says. “And if you have a good football or basketball season, the pride students feel for their school carries over into the community.

“Though you hope for some balance, it’s been athletics, not academics, that has tended to shape the community’s view of a school,” he says, adding: “There’s an old adage among high school principals that you need a graduate degree and a winning football team to make it, and that’s not so overblown. You feel the pressure.”

While the demand for winning teams has remained a constant, high school sports’ educational mission has continued to evolve, and today, competition has come to be viewed as a means of instilling the importance of determination and discipline in the players--skills and understanding that will carry over to the classroom and, eventually, the workplace. U.S. schools are the only ones in the world to tie sports so closely to academics. Elsewhere, schools and sports typically remain separate institutions with distinct goals.

“School sports have a unique purpose, to keep young people focused on schoolwork, and to emphasize citizenship, teamwork, respect, and honesty,” says Robert F. Kanaby, the sixth executive director of the national high school federation. “We want young athletes to become better people, not just better players.”

The typical student athlete, he says--and studies confirm--tends to perform as well or better academically than his or her nonathlete peers and is more likely to steer clear of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and pregnancy.

But athletes’ behavior and academic achievement are, of course, not always stellar. And while school officials over the years may have encouraged athletes to stay out of trouble and keep their grades up, there were no laws dictating what sort of student could or couldn’t play sports until 1984, when business magnate Ross Perot persuaded lawmakers in football-mad Texas to adopt a policy barring students with failing grades from competition.

The Texas policy was dubbed “no-pass, no-play,” and nearly 30 states and many districts have put similar restrictions on the books since, many of which extend to students participating in all co-curricular programs. Critics argue that such rules are too punitive and haven’t worked to push students to work any harder in school. As a result, some policymakers have already begun to soften such requirements.

Through the century, virtually every aspect of school sports programs has steadily expanded. A few choices have multiplied to many, including more specialized diversions such as synchronized swimming, archery, water polo, and ice hockey. And as the offerings have grown, so have the staffs that manage them.

“For years, the standard was three sports taught by three coaches--all male,” says Art Taylor, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “Everything’s changed.”

Nowadays, a growing body of professionals--a legion of coaches, one or two athletic directors, physical trainers, even legal advisers--works to keep the average high school’s sports program afloat.

Much of the growth in interscholastic athletics can be credited to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools accepting federal funds. The law, says Judith C. Young, the executive director of the National Association of Sport and Physical Education, “has brought the most obvious and extensive change to high school sports,” by forcing schools to broaden their roster of sports and, at least as the law is written, to open up as many athletic opportunities for girls as for boys.

Participation surveys illustrate school sports’ expansion and the steady gains in the number of female athletes over the past three decades: Some 6.4 million high school students participated in interscholastic sports last school year--about 2.6 million, or 40.6 percent, of them girls, according to the national federation. Those figures compare with about 4 million student athletes, 294,000, or 7.4 percent, of them girls, in 1971, the first year the federation conducted its participation survey.

Though Title IX opened up unprecedented chances for female athletes, school-age girls and women had been competing in sports all along. Opportunities to play basketball, volleyball, tennis, field hockey, and other sports had been in place since the turn of the century through intramural sports and outside clubs. And those programs expanded over the years.

“Women have always had competitive outlets; they were just outside the school systems,” says Hult, the sports historian. “Women didn’t want the same scene as men, which was already so corrupt,” she says. With no power over or position in male sports, she explains, they wanted control of girls’ sports, so they started their own organizations.

The game rules and the settings for those early girls’ teams--what Hult calls the “underground varsity"--were drastically different from what they were for boys. Girls’ basketball, for example, was played on a half court, and men were banished from the gym during games. In some regions, female players couldn’t play two consecutive quarters and were checked regularly for signs of overexertion.

Despite the kid gloves, Hult disputes the implication that the women who played in those early leagues were at all sluggish. “When women had the chance to play competitive sports,” she says, “they played vigorously.”

Eventually, faced with girls who had sufficiently developed their athletic talents to perform as well as or better than their male counterparts, some schools began adding girls to their otherwise all-male team rosters. In California, so many girls were running, swimming, diving, and playing tennis and golf with the boys, according to William W. Russell, the executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation from 1955 to 1980, that the state began to start or expand existing girls’ sports teams in the 1960s.

“We were getting so many calls from principals asking if girls could play on boys’ teams, I said, ‘We’ve got to do something about the girls’ program,’ ” recalls Russell. “If it’s good for boys, we thought, then it’s good for girls.”

But California’s effort to expand girls’ sports was the exception. Nationwide, most schools didn’t offer girls nearly the opportunities to play that boys had, and outside opportunities were limited. It wasn’t really until the mid-1970s that female athletes began having a strong presence on high school campuses. By adding millions of young women to high school teams, Title IX helped dispel some of those early notions of a “weaker sex.”

As in professional and college sports ranks, however, all is not equal for the young men and women who play high school sports.

Diana Everett, the executive director of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport, maintains that Title IX still has “a long, long way to go” to make high school sports equitable.

“We’ve made some great strides in women’s sports, no doubt. But discrimination is still a huge problem in schools, and especially high schools,” she says.

The story of African-Americans in high school sports is not entirely different from that of girls and young women. Like that of female athletes, African-Americans’ experience depended heavily on local vagaries. But for blacks in segregated school systems, race was the factor in high school sports.

“If a black youngster in the North were lucky, he or she could go to a fairly decent public school where sports were a regular part of the extracurricular activities program,” the late tennis champion Arthur R. Ashe Jr. wrote in A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete 1919-45, published in 1988. “In the South, a black youngster would be lucky to finish the seventh grade before being forced by economic necessity to work. Even if he or she had the time, the imbalance of facilities was blatant.”

Where schools weren’t segregated, many say that race simply wasn’t a big factor. Russell, who played basketball for an integrated high school team in Santa Barbara, Calif., and later played on a college team, says that where he went to school and competed, “race never was an issue. High school teams played as if there were no color lines at all.”

Thomas D. Hemans, the director of New York City’s Public School Athletic League, was one of the few black basketball players for his team at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn in the early 1950s. He looks back on his basketball-playing years fondly, and when asked, says no specific racial indignities from those times come to mind.

“In the regular school setting, people tended to be pulled toward their own ethnic group. And even today, that’s still the case,” Hemans says. “But when you have students on a team together because of their talent and working for a common goal, race is not a factor. We have a United Nations of teams here, and these kids are not interested in the color of each others’ skin.”

With the capability of school sports to help forge such friendships, as well as lay the groundwork for academic and personal success and draw communities together, there are few forces threatening the institution.

But some observers worry about the shenanigans of professional athletes who engage in “trash talk,” disrespect coaches and game officials, and have run-ins with the law--all while earning millions.

One result of such examples has been escalating trouble on high school basketball courts and football fields, and more high school students--despite the million-to-one odds--who aspire to what seems an easy life of big money and big fame in the professional ranks. To counter such problems, some schools have scaled back or modified their athletic programs.

But to Taylor of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, high schools shouldn’t give up on sports because of the unsportsmanlike behavior of some athletes.

Because of their educational mission and understanding of what motivates young people, he says, school officials have the power to stave off some of the problems and abuses that plague college and professional sports--and that’s power they should use, he says.

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as Team Players