Columns 2008

Athletics shouldn’t outrank academics

Our schools’ report cards don’t look very good. That’s sad because children who didn’t use their educational opportunities to full advantage will always be a step behind those who did. It’s scary because, to beat a trite old phrase to death, these kids are our future and our future doesn’t seem to be able to read or do math.

As we run around trying to figure out why Johnny can’t read and Susie can’t do math, I think we should peek into a corner that is traditionally left untouched because of its sensitive nature.  In fact, as my fingers move over these keys to write the words, I’m already contemplating the need to change my phone number and e-mail address because of the avalanche of mail I will receive telling me I just don’t understand how important this little corner really is to our children’s development.

I’m talking about sports and the amount of time, energy, and money put into sports at every level of our educational system. If children learn from the example set by the adults around them, then the lesson they are learning is that if you want your parent’s attention, enthusiasm and praise, join a team. Become a football player or a soccer player or a basketball player. If you do, your classmates, teachers and parents will fawn over you, hold pep rallies in your honor, pay for you to go to special camps so you can improve your jump shot or kick…you will, in fact, have the total devotion and attention of most adults in your life.

Join the debate team, the spelling bee or the orchestra and the sound in your ears as you bring home the gold will be deafening silence since everyone will be too busy at the football pep rally. Need money for that trip to the national competition? Then you’d better be ready to wash cars, sell gift wrap or ask your parents for a plane ticket because you will find that the school does not have much money for academic competitions.

I can hear the schools and parents screaming now about how sports are excellent for getting children to be active and working well with others. No argument here. I think sports are a great adjunct to school life. The problem is that sports have moved from adjunct to the spotlight, pushing academics to the side.

We teach our children what’s important by the importance we attach to it.  If football games rate bunting, pep rallies, bon fires, band playing and parents cheering, then clearly a football game is very important. If a debate competition rates barely a mention over the PA system…well, it doesn’t take an idiot to figure out which thing the adults attach more importance to.

When I lived in Barrow, I watched the school band there struggle to raise money to go to national competitions where they often took first place.  The band parents were told by the school board that money was tight and they couldn’t pay for the whole trip. The boys’ basketball team, however, had a hundred thousand dollar travel budget. 

Now Barrow has a football team. As its students fail academically, it has found money to not only fund the team but to fund its travel throughout the state. 

The argument made for athletics is that it keeps kids in school, thereby giving them a better chance at a successful future.  Really?  Could someone please point me to the study that shows that? Because I know way too many kids who are adrift after high school as they find out that in life, no one stands on the sidelines and cheers the three pointer made in a pick up game at the gym.

When high school is over, what do these young athletes have? Memories of winning a game won’t get you into college or count for much on a job application, especially if that paper you have is a certificate of attendance and not a diploma. 

What these young people are left with is a feeling that they peaked in high school. They have the rest of their lives to live and we’ve haven’t given them the tools to succeed.

Schools should celebrate athletic achievements, but not to the detriment of their main focus, celebrating academic achievement.