Columns 2007

Football program of questionable value

The pictures in the paper last week of the Barrow boys’ football team frolicking in the ocean off Florida were geared towards only one response.  Everyone was supposed to say, “Aw.”

Once we get past the cute factor, however, some hard questions need to be asked. Perhaps first and foremost should be how a community justifies the hundreds of thousands of dollars it will spend on a handful of boys on a football team while cutting back on academics, eliminating many bilingual education programs and totally ignoring the entire female population of the school.  Or did I miss the mention of a sport for girls that’s been started for anywhere near that amount of money?

I know all the arguments for the football program. It will encourage young men to stay in school and graduate. It will give them a taste of discipline and working as a team. It will enhance their feelings of self-worth and perhaps make them feel good enough to go out and succeed in life and not succumb to drugs, alcohol and the kind of despair that leads to suicide. Anyone living in Alaska has got to be aware of the horrifying statistics of suicide rates among young Native males.  So it should be a no brainer to support this program, right?

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but all those reason for starting an extremely costly program that will ultimately affect very few students, are the same reasons I heard for years in Barrow to justify maintaining an equally expensive basketball program. The only difference is that at least the basketball program included girls.

I have to wonder if any studies have actually been done on the North Slope to show that students who participated in basketball did better after graduation than those who didn’t.  Or even so basic a study as to show how many basketball players actually went on to graduate with a degree as opposed to a certificate of attendance when compared to non-players.  Wouldn’t you think that before pouring that much into starting up a program that will only suck money from a shrinking budget, some proof would have been required of its ability to deliver on its promises?

And let me add again, what about the girls?  Do they already graduate in sufficient numbers that we don’t have to worry about them? Will the school board find another couple hundred thousand dollars in order to start a program specifically designed to keep them in school until they graduate?  Maybe we should just eliminate academics altogether and focus on sports since that seems to be what people think these kids do best. I’ve certainly not heard of any academic competition getting anywhere near this much funding.

A whole lot of money is being spent on a feel good program that ultimately has questionable value at best if the hoped for outcome is a better future for the students. And putting this much money into the program in a time of tight budgets that lead to cuts in academic programs gives the absolute wrong message to students about where the emphasis should be.

High school is supposed to be about learning skills and knowledge for your future. Sports are a great adjunct to academics and used wisely can enhance the experience. But at a time when many high school seniors can sink a basket but can’t read and comprehend the front page of a newspaper, to put this much money into a sports program that affects so few is questionable at best.

When do these kids get to learn that it’s about more than scoring a point? When does someone stand up and cheer because they received an 800 on their math SAT or are graduating with a 4.0? When will we have pep rallies before sending students off to a battle of the books?

Most employers are more worried about how well you read than how many three-point conversions you can make. That’s a cold bath in reality for a student who has coasted through school simply because he was a good athlete. If we’re worried about young men feeling good about themselves, then we should be very worried about the first day they wake up after graduation and find that being a good ball handler won’t get them anything but a pick up game at the school gym after their friends get off work.

(One a personal note: This is my last column with the Voice of the Times. I’ve had a great run and great fun.  My editors have always shown me and my work the utmost respect. I appreciate that and wish them well in their new endeavor.)