The Valdosta High School football team plays in a 10,000-seat stadium, raised close to $500,000 in total revenue last year, and provides its coach with a free Dodge truck to drive around the Georgia town. Local residents can watch a cable TV show devoted to the Wildcats’ exploits and join the Touchdown Club to get the first crack at coveted playoff tickets.
“We’re one of the biggest businesses in Valdosta,” said Kevin Weldon, the media director for the Touchdown Club. “You have a lot of visitors who stop off the interstate to make sure they see a game. All these people aren’t coming for academics or SAT scores.”
As in Valdosta, a growing number of high school athletic programs have taken on the trappings of university-level sports. A report released last week by the National Association of State Boards of Education warns that the trend threatens to undermine high schools’ academic missions.
The problems that have plagued college athletics are now becoming more frequent at the high school and even the middle school level, the report says, citing “unscrupulous agents, mercenary coaches, questionable recruiting practices, and extravagant benefits bestowed upon players.”
“These practices compromise the school’s educational mission and undermine the public’s confidence in the education system,’’ it says. “While colleges have taken steps to address these issues over the past two decades, there has been little discussion or even acknowledgment among state education policymakers of the increasingly troubling situation.”
“Athletics and Achievement: The Report of the NASBE Commission on High School Athletics in An Era of Reform” is the product of a yearlong study group that broadly examined the state of high school athletics. Commission members included state education leaders who gathered information from national sports experts, ethicists, high school athletic directors, and others who explored topics from inequities in athletic funding to the role coaches play in students’ lives.
As corporate sponsorship of high school teams increases, nationally televised high school games become more common, and students often specialize in one sport year-round, the 44-page report warns of a culture where academic priorities can easily slip through the cracks.
State board members and other education leaders are failing “to guarantee that interscholastic athletics do not take precedence over student academic performance,” the report concludes.
“We decided we couldn’t look at high school reform without looking at the total high school experience, which includes athletics, particularly in smaller communities and other places where the football or basketball team are an integral part of the community,” said Brenda Lilienthal Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based NASBE.
“We’re not anti-athletics,” Ms. Welborn added. “It’s an integral part of a lot of kids’ high school experience, but clearly if we don’t look at all aspects of a student’s life, we will fall short of reaching our goals.”
A national commission examining high school athletics in a climate of higher academic standards for students has made numerous recommendations:
1. State boards should obtain more data and information than is currently available on athletics and student achievement.
2. Athletic programs need to support and monitor academic progress throughout a student’s high school career.
3. Athletic eligibility should be dependent on a student’s progress toward the successful completion of high school as defined by the state.
4. Communities need to examine the relationship between secondary athletic programs and community athletic programs beyond the halls of high school.
5. State boards need to carefully consider policies that allow all students, particularly those in vocational education, the opportunity to participate in athletics.
6. State boards need to consider programs that will encourage all students to engage in daily physical activity.
7. State boards need to consider policies that test and monitor the use of performance-enhancing drugs by high school athletes.
8. State boards need to consider policies and programs designed to educate students, particularly minority students, as to the limitations of viewing athletics as an end without equal consideration of academics.
9. State boards need to develop and encourage professional-development programs for coaches to communicate the benefits of multisports athletics and the disadvantages of sports specialization.
10. State boards should review certification and professional-development requirements for coaches and establish them if absent.
11. States should conduct extensive research to quantify the revenue and expenses attributed to high school sports, including revenue not typically revealed in individual school budgets.
12. State boards should consider the impact of fiscal inequities due to the capacity of communities to differentially support fund-raising activities.
13. States should consider the creation of after-school programs specifically targeted toward special education students.
14. State boards should review current state statutes concerning cyber- and home-schooled students to clarify access issues.
15. State boards should develop guidelines designed to assist those schools and districts that allow the involvement of cyber- and home-schooled students.
16. State boards should review existing charter school legislation for content specific to high school athletics.
17. State boards and state activities associations should establish and build a strong relationship to jointly determine critical issues in areas of overlap, including eligibility standards and monitoring student participations and the impact of student transfers and recruiting activities.
SOURCE: NASBE Commission on High School Athletics in an Era of Reform
In many cases, education leaders lack even the most basic information on athletics and student achievement, the report says. Also lacking are data on schools’ expenditures for athletic programs. State board members should take a more active role in working with the state athletic associations that govern high school sports to set high standards for athletic eligibility, it recommends, and conduct more research on the impact of athletic participation on academics.
Robert Gardner, the chief operating officer of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, said he hoped the report would spark more discussion about the proper relationship between athletics and academics.
“The academic mission should come first,” he said. “We need to pay attention to what is going on and bring some balance to our programs.”
The NASBE report comes as the movie “Friday Night Lights” is showing in theaters. The film, based on a widely discussed 1990 book by H.G. Bissinger, a reporter who chronicled a West Texas high school football team’s pursuit of a state championship, highlights the obsession in Odessa for the Permian High School Panthers.
Raymond Perryman, an economist who has studied the financial impact of high school football in Texas, found in a study last month for TheDallas Morning News that interscholastic football in the state is a $900 million-a-year business. In most cases, he said, money generated by the football team helps pay for other athletic programs, such as soccer, tennis, and golf.
“Football is a significant piece of the economy, and a significant part of the culture,” Mr. Perryman, who lives three blocks from the 19,300-seat stadium where Permian High plays its home games, said in a recent interview. “Communities gather around the teams.”
Mr. Perryman’s analysis found that Texas high school football fans spend at least $275 million a season on tickets, concessions, travel, and lodging. Advertising revenues from game-day programs alone, he found, can top $50,000 a year at large high schools.
Vernon Reeves, the principal of the 2,300-student Denton Ryan High School north of Dallas, said his school enjoys the national exposure the football team brings. The team plays in a $20 million football complex it shares with another high school. Earlier this month, Denton played the nation’s No. 1 ranked Southlake Carroll (Texas) High School in a nationally televised game on ESPN.
Mr. Reeves doesn’t worry that this could send the wrong message to youth athletes and other students about the respect given to football compared to algebra class or the debate team.
“Sports a lot of the time get the spotlight,” Mr. Reeves acknowledged. “But in everything we do, we make a commitment to excellence.”
For Brett Stanton, the principal of Valdosta High in southern Georgia, where football players take the field on Friday nights in a newly renovated, $7.5 million stadium, it’s all about maintaining perspective.
While football is “the big dog as far as generating revenue,” he said, he insisted it doesn’t skew scholastic priorities. The school recently opened a $5 million arts center, and this fall began implementing the High Schools That Work reform model developed by the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.
“We make a very conscious effort to make sure there is a strong balance between academics and athletics,” Mr. Stanton said, “especially in this day of accountability.”
But Kevin McDowell, the general counsel for the Indiana Department of Education and a member of the NASBE commission, laments how hard that message is to convey to some student athletes in his state. The athletic-footwear maker Reebok and other companies are sponsoring teams, some Indiana high school basketball games will be televised nationally, and summer league camps have become breeding grounds for agents and recruiters.
“People are filling kids’ heads with all kinds of stuff,” Mr. McDowell said. “You want kids to maintain their amateur status, and you don’t want kids thinking sports is their job. It’s not. Their job is to get their butts in school, and it’s hard to teach kids important life lessons when people are talking about shoe endorsements and going to the [National Basketball Association].”
That’s overheated talk, according to John Johnson, the communications director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, who says most high school athletes’ experience is not so exalted.
“For your typical high school, the high school stadium with 20,000 seats and video boards are a pipe dream,” he said. “So much, the media wants to make high school sports what it’s not. A few years ago it was the LeBron James phenomenon. That’s not the rank and file, and it never will be.”
LeBron James, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a sophomore at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, bypassed college and was the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft.
But a vigilant mind-set is needed, Mr. Johnson said: “We have to be on guard because there will always be a trickle-down effect with high schools, whether it’s the plays you call, how you paint the end zone, or how you build facilities. We have to remember we are not football factories. We’re here to educate kids.”
Duke Albanese, a former Maine commissioner of education, is trying to reinforce that message as the director of the Coaching and Sports Education Initiative at the University of Maine. Started with a $397,000 grant from Congress, the project will devise a national model for sports programs that complement state academic standards.
“State boards of education need to think anew about athletics,” Mr. Albanese said. “Is there someone taking the time to describe what it means to do sports the right way? Is there a common vision about what sports need to look like? That’s what standards are.”
The Maine initiative has convened a panel of state leaders to begin shaping core principles that can guide interscholastic sports. Last March, 300 student athletes from 87 high schools and 24 middle schools from around the state met to explore students’ ideas about what positive athletic experiences look like.
“Our schools are hungry for this,” Mr. Albanese said. “Our school boards and superintendents have said this is exactly what we need. Everybody is looking to do this right.”