The United States is obsessed with sports in ways that other countries are not.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in our public schools.
Crucial hiring decisions are often made based – not on how they will impact academics – but on how they will improve the school’s athletics program.
US districts spend exorbitant amounts of their budgets staffing, managing, transporting, insuring, and promoting their sports teams.
And millions of students are unnecessarily injured every year with the risk of life-long health consequences while also being encouraged to be less empathetic and hyper competitive.
This may sound hard to believe, but it’s not this way in the rest of the world.
Most countries don’t have school sports teams at all, and even those that do rarely compete with each other.
In places like Finland and Germany, kids play sports in local and national clubs. These clubs identify and train children from an early age to become athletes – especially in soccer, which is much more popular there.
Even Canada follows this practice with hockey. Young athletes don’t play for their high schools; they play for one of three national hockey leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Schools in these countries still have physical education classes. Students still exercise and play games including sports during the day. However, the schools don’t organize extracurricular teams that play matches against each other transporting students far and wide.
The way we do things in the US – combining athletics and academics under one roof – ends up making each undertaking enemies.
Kids are unnecessarily injured in the games and indoctrinated in an ethic of dominance. In addition, sports programs gobble up limited resources meant for the classroom, and incentivize bad decisions that prize athletics over everything else.
Let’s look at each in turn:
School sports began as a way to keep kids safe.
About 120 years ago, schools were not involved in organized athletics.
Around 1900, if children wanted to play sports, they did so in pickup games wherever they could – in parks, fields and alleys. However, these were chaotic affairs rife with cheating that often degraded into brawls.
It got bad enough that adults thought organizing sports in the schools would be safer for all involved.
However, after more than a century, these games, themselves, have become a source of injury.
“High school athletes suffer two million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year,” According to Youth Sports Safety Statistics.
Perhaps the most dangerous are concussions. These are especially frequent in contact sports like football where athletes bump or smash their heads or bodies into each other. Even with protective equipment like helmets and pads, such collisions can cause traumatic brain injuries that can alter the way brains function for a lifetime.
An estimated 300, 000 sport-related traumatic brain injuries occur annually in the United States, according to a 2007 study by the Journal of Athletic Training. There is some evidence that the number may be even higher today.
In fact, sports are second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries among people aged 15 to 24.
During the 2005-06 season, high school football players sustained more than half a million injuries nationally, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children’s Hospital. While football easily incurs the highest risk, even sports like soccer and baseball are responsible for thousands of injuries to adolescents between the ages of 10 to 14 every year.
And that’s only the most obvious danger. It doesn’t even include increased steroid use, fighting during games, hazing violence, excessive training, verbal abuse, and failure to provide proper care during important matches.
Competitive extracurricular sports can be dangerous to young people’s health. It is certainly valid to question whether schools should be involved in such practices incurring liability and potentially harming their own students.
2) Warrior Mindset
And then there’s the question of whether school sports are healthy for our minds as well as our bodies.
At the turn of the 20th Century, schools started organizing their own teams because they wanted to not just keep kids physically safe, but provide a healthy alternative to the kinds of activities they might be lured into on the streets. Based on the Victorian ideal of “Muscular Christianity,” sports was considered something wholesome that would district American children (especially boys) from social ills like gambling and prostitution.
However, even then it was a manifestation of the period’s xenophobia.
In the early 1900s, the US had just admitted a surge of European immigrants. Some people were worried that immigrant children would overrun the kids already here. Physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. described this class of American-born kids as “stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth.” It was suggested that organized sports would help them become as brawny as those just coming to our shores.
So the driving motives behind the creation of school sports were bigotry and fear.
Sadly, not much has changed in the intervening years.
Sports culture creates understandings of the world and self that are not entirely healthy in a democratic society.
For instance, an emphasis on competition instills the ethic that it is the outcome – winning or losing – that is most important. As kids become adults, this informs the way they frame ethical choices. Moreover, it dampens empathy. You’re discouraged from caring about members of the other team and encouraged to be hostile to anyone considered an other. Even teammates are only worthy of care in so much as they help you win. There is always latent competition because there is a constant danger that one of your teammates could take your place.
Moreover, sports do not value critical thinking or individuality. You listen to your coach or team captain or whoever in the hierarchy is above you. Questioning authority is discouraged. Instead, you’re impressed with the duty to follow and accept the decisions of those in charge.
These values would be more helpful in the development of warriors or soldiers – not democratic citizens. We need people who value tolerance, discussion, justice, caring, and diversity of ideals – exactly the opposite of what organized sports instills.
The world view promoted by organized athletic competition is not healthy for our students.
However, even if school sports didn’t hurt kids physically and mentally, they cost a ridiculous amount of money!
On average, American schools spend $100 billion on sporting events and more than $56 billion in catering for food and beverages every year.
About 8 million high school students participate in sports annually – roughly 3 million girls and 5 million boys.
However, this is actually a minority of students, only about 42%. That’s because it often costs parents an additional fee for their kids to play on school teams – between $670 – $1,000 a year. This includes sporting registration fees, uniforms, coaching, and lessons.
Contrary to popular belief, ticket and concession sales do not generate a profit for most high schools. They often don’t even cover costs.
This is true even in colleges. According to the NCAA, among the 65 schools in Division I, only 25 recorded a positive net generated revenue in 2019.
Costs to districts are hard to quantify but significant.
Football is easily the most expensive high school sport. Consider that many football teams have half a dozen or more coaches, all of whom usually receive a stipend. And some schools go even further hiring professional coaches at full salaries or designate a teacher as the full-time athletic director. The cost of new bleachers can top half a million dollars – about the same as artificial turf. Even maintaining a grass field can cost more than $20,000 a year. Not to mention annual expenses like reconditioning helmets, which can cost more than $1,500 for a large team. To help offset these costs, some communities collect private donations or levy a special tax for initiatives like new gyms or sports facilities.
There are so many costs people rarely consider. For example, when teachers who also serve as coaches travel for game days, schools need to hire substitute teachers. They also need to pay for buses for the team, the band, and the cheerleaders. And that’s before you even take into account meals and hotels during away games. Even when events are at home, schools typically cover the cost of hiring officials, providing security, painting the lines on the field, and cleaning up afterward.
They often end up spending more per student athlete than they do per pupil in the classroom.
Marguerite Roza, the author of Educational Economics, analyzed the finances of one public high school in the Pacific Northwest. She and her colleagues found that the school was spending $328 a student for math instruction and more than four times that much for cheerleading—$1,348 a cheerleader.
In an age when school budget cuts are the norm, spending on academics is shrinking just as spending on sports is increasing. Athletics is increasing by up to 40% every year. Meanwhile, teachers are furloughed and academic programs cut as school budgets haven’t even returned to the level they were before the Great Recession.
One wonders – can we afford school athletics? Wouldn’t it be better to spend school budgets on learning – something all students participate in – rather than something that only benefits a fraction of the student body?
4) Decision Making
The cost of school sports isn’t measured just in dollars and cents but in the kinds of decisions administrators and school board members make for the sake of athletics – regardless of how it impacts academics.
People are often hired for important school positions based on their sports credentials even when their jobs are supposed to be mainly focused on improving student learning.
This is especially true where I live in Western Pennsylvania.
In my home district of McKeesport, when our superintendent, Dr. Mark Holtzman, was hired, he did not have any proven track record of scholastic success but had been a football star when he was a student here.
Likewise, the district where I work as a teacher, Steel Valley, hired Eddie Wehrer as superintendent without any degree in education but experience as a football coach.
And until recently, the biggest district in the region, Pittsburgh Public Schools, had a former NFL player, Dr. Anthony Hamlet, as superintendent.
The same goes for principals recommending new staff.
Sometimes administrators will lower their standards and recommend a less qualified applicant if he or she has experience as an athletic coach.
Whether they’ll admit it or not, the prospect of a winning season for the football team is often prioritized over new textbooks, smaller class sizes or other improvements.
The act of running for school board is often seen as a way to have greater control over district athletics. Go to most local school board meetings and you’ll hear much more discussion of various teams and extracurricular activities than academic programs.
Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw many schools reopening against the recommendations of county, state and national health organizations because of the needs of sports. The teams couldn’t get back on the fields when school buildings were closed and classes on-line. Moreover, they ignored safety concerns for players who would by necessity come into close contact and could not realistically practice social distancing or masks wearing.
This is partly because American sports is big business.
National organizations like the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball recruit most of their players from colleges who recruit most of their players from K-12 schools. It’s a lucrative system with billions of dollars in profit on the line.
If students get an excellent education, that’s seen as a personal benefit to them, alone. But if a student athlete gets signed to a sports contract, that enriches the team and the corporation orders of magnitude more than the athlete.
Schools bask in the reflected glory of successful athletes, teams and programs. Grown adults who are too old to participate, themselves, take vicarious pleasure in these successes.
I understand that this is a very controversial topic.
There is a small minority of students who benefits from school athletics and even come to school primarily just to participate in sports.
However, the negatives far outweigh the benefits.
I think it’s time we begin considering separating sports and schools.
Students who want to participate in such activities can do so through private athletic clubs just like kids all over the world.
And before I’m criticized as being anti-sports, consider that such a separation would benefit both endeavors. Students would have more time and resources to focus on learning, while athletes could concentrate more on their chosen sport and train all year long instead of just during a certain season.
I have no illusions that anyone will take my advice. Sports are way too entrenched in American schools and our elected officials can’t even seem to find the courage to enact obvious reforms like gun control, repealing charter schools, ending standardized testing and funding schools equitably.
However, if we really want the best for US children, we should give them what kids the world over already have – schools separate from organized sports.
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