Imagine a math classroom on the opening day of the school year. The teacher greets the students by informing them that in his class, math isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. He expects students to be committed 110 percent to math, every day; he expects them to forgo all other activities and concentrate only on math. He ridicules other interests students may have: They are not important; only math matters. Students caught participating in other activities will have to do a blackboard full of multiplication tables—not as punishment, of course, but to make them better math students.
This hypothetical teacher tells his students that he will favor those who are gifted at math, although he will also demand more from them because of their talent. The rest of the students should feel grateful to be in the presence of such stars. The students who find math difficult, who have limited natural aptitude or potential, may feel they do not belong and are not welcome, and they will not be discouraged from that opinion.
A preposterous scenario, right? Well, yes and no. This would never happen in a math class or any other subject (I hope). But it happens all the time with athletics. I have an 8th grade daughter, and I have dreaded the day she would first encounter a coach with this attitude. I figured she would make it to high school before it became an issue, but she was not so lucky.
At the beginning of the spring sports season, my daughter and her teammates were greeted by a speech not too far from that of the hypothetical math teacher I described. The coach insisted on an all-or-nothing approach to his sport. All other activities would have to be rescheduled or dropped altogether. To miss practice for, say, a music lesson would earn a spot on the bench for the next game, plus four laps around the field at the next practice. The coach sneered at any other activities a student might have; nothing was more important than his sport.
My daughter has a hard choice to make. I expect she will sort it out without lasting damage. But the message conveyed by this approach to sports and the choices it leads many of our children to make is not without lasting damage. The message is that participating in sports is only for the committed, only for the talented, only for those willing to make the success of their team the overriding priority of their lives. It is an elitist message, warning those who are not athletically gifted or not yet skillful that they will be subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle denigration, even humiliation. As a result, many kids, whether they can’t satisfy the demands of single-minded dedication or because they feel athletically challenged in some way, take the hint and don’t even think about participating in sports.
What I don’t understand is why parents and school leaders tolerate this. We should be well aware of the devastating long-term health consequences of inactivity and poor fitness. Yet we allow the sports programs that consume the lion’s share of our school fitness budgets to be conducted in a way that excludes large numbers of students, especially those who most need to develop good fitness habits. If anything, our school sports programs reinforce many students’ self-image as nonathletic types who shouldn’t even bother trying to participate. When schools approach academic subjects in this way, giving average or below-average students the message that they shouldn’t even bother, we quite rightly get up in arms. But when it comes to sports, we not only allow it, we encourage it; we even demand it.
I have no objection to providing opportunities for talented athletes to excel, no more than I do to offering our brightest students the chance to achieve at the highest possible level in academic subjects. But just as we should not structure academic programs in a way that denies students who are not stars the resources they need to learn to their full potential and acquire the skills they need to succeed in adult life, we should not allow athletics to serve only the most gifted students while ignoring the needs of those less talented.
I agree with the parents who argue that sports are as much a part of our schools’ mission as the three R’s. But we need to take that a step further and insist that athletics programs carry out that mission by addressing the needs of all students, and not just a select few.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as No Child Left on the Sidelines