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Athletics: Asset or Boondoggle for Schools?

Posted by Grace Lee on Oct 4, 2013 4:12:00 PM

To Play or Not to Play--That is the Question

Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else.
Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about
America’s international mediocrity in education.
--Amanda Ripley, Oct 2013, Atlantic Monthly, "The Case Against High-School Sports"

Sports collageInter-school athletics are a core part of American schools and accepted as the norm, but that wasn't always the case and team sports are not part of schools in countries where the students outperform US students on nearly every academic evaluation. This conversation shouldn't be about just cutting sports (or other co-curricular programs), but rather to find the most efficient and effective ways to allow students access to these valuable learning opportunities--even if that means moving the management of athletics outside of the school or district.

Personally, participation in sports helped me develop as a young man. Football, wrestling, basketball, etc., taught me perseverance, courage, leadership, and so much more. Coaches have the chance to inspire students in ways that are really difficult in the common classroom, but this question must be seriously considered in light of new expectations and constraints for schools.


Political and education leaders say they want to focus resources on the core subjects and academic quality, but typically schools spend significantly more per student on electives, other co-curricular activities, and especially sports. Compromises are made daily in the academic program in order to accommodate demand in these other areas.

Secondary and higher ed schools continue to seek ways to finance their organizational growth. Colorado State University, for example, has decided to build a $246 million football stadium to make up for budget holes. According to University President Tony Frank, this investment will yield a winning football team that will also attracting full-tuition-paying out-of-state students. CSU is attempting to leverage the Flutie Effect, where a sports team's success increases the enrollment and fundraising for the school. Appalachian State, Boise State, and Butler University are three examples where this goal of school growth has been realized, but is this a temporary expansion at the expense of institution's core mission?


Efficient management of sports facilities is not an expertise that contributes to academic quality. School administrators spend an inordinate amount of time scheduling/rescheduling games, coordinating personnel and travel, maintaining fields, buses, and other equipment, resolving conflicts with academic and arts priorities, mediating conflicts, and the list goes on. The formal evaluation of school administrators, however, generally doesn't include the results from any of these activities!

School culture

Much excitement can be generated around sports, especially football. Pep rallies, homecoming, spirit wear, etc., provides energetic momentum for school culture--especially for those that have a winning season. Student and parent behavior at sporting events, however, is often inconsistent with the mission of the school and requires administrative intervention. Every school administrator in a public or private secondary school has to deal with multiple disciplinary issues at or around sports events. Is this a valuable use of their time?

The number of students involved in the primary sports is usually limited to a small percentage of the whole population, creating greater social value at the exclusion of others. This isn't about giving a trophy to everyone, but is this result consistent with the purpose and mission of the school?

Viable Option

At the secondary level, High School Football is about the only sport that doesn't have better community leagues than the school teams. Baseball, soccer, softball, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, golf, etc., all have well developed non-school leagues for substantial player development and opportunity. Yes, inter-school athletics is an integral part of schools, but what if academic quality and athletic quality would each increase by separating the management of these two distinct services? And if it's about the money, isn't it possible that the community or for-profit league can pay sufficient taxes to put back into the schools? I would not have said this five years ago, but it's a question worthy of serious investigation in the effort to reinvent American schools.



Topics: School Culture

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