Should we get rid of high school athletics?
Mr. McNamar, in The Daily Grind, had a very thoughtful post recently in which he suggested that it is time it is time to end high school sports. He gave valid reasons, but I strongly disagree with him. I've written posts before that defended athletics, and also that expressed my concerns about them, so I might be repeating myself at times. This is a very important subject to me, however, so I hope you'll bear with me.
Despite the problems that Mr. McNamar points out, there is no question in my mind that high school athletics is a good thing. For starters, it is probably the high school sports teams more than anything else that unites a community around a school. Strong proponents of academics might think this isn't the way it should be, but it is. Park Rapids is a school district in northern Minnesota that has had financial difficulties for some time now, but referendum after referendum failed there. Finally, last fall they gave it one more try. The superintendent announced that if this one failed, they would have to cut their sports program. Magically, it passed. Does anyone think that by getting rid of high school sports that communities will begin to care more about their schools?
Mr. McNamar refers to the sense of entitlement that some high school athletes acquire. I know that there are some athletes who think they are God's gifts to the world, there are some who think they deserve special treatment, and there are some people in authority who are stupid enough to give them exactly that. But this is something that is definitely not inevitable, and in fact, it should not happen. Obviously, it is the best athletes who are mostly likely to acquire this self-destructive attitude, and this is where good coaches are crucial. Good athletes and good teams need to constantly be reminded that they are fortunate rather than wonderful, and the school has to make it clear that they won't be given any special favors if they don't do their school work or if they don't behave the way they should. I would have to be very naive not to realize that there are coaches out there who lack integrity and do want special favors for their players but, at least in Minnesota, they are clearly a minority.
Two of Mr. McNamar's reasons for getting rid of high school sports have to do with the unfair pressure on coaches from parents and administrators. It is true that this has become more and more of a problem over the years. Parents who are unhappy with a teacher don't like the teacher, but parents who are unhappy with a coach often view him with unmitigated hatred. The answer to this problem lies in having good administrators, especially good athletic directors with real backbone. I know that this is very possible because during my coaching career I was blessed with excellent ones. I should also say that most of the parents of players I coached during my career were supportive, and the only time I would hear from them was at the end of a season when they thanked me. The problem is that, just as it is true for teachers, one obnoxious parent can make a coach forget about thirty good ones.
Mr. McNamar also gives the cost of high school sports as a reason for getting rid of them. I can only say that I think they are worth the cost. In Minnesota statistics show that students involved in sports get better grades and are much less likely to drop out than students who aren't. I assume that is probably true across the nation. During my career, I have known many kids who worked much harder in school than they otherwise would have because they believed they had a chance for an athletic scholarship. I have also known several students who graduated only because they played high school sports. They didn't care at all about their English, history, math, and science classes, but they cared greatly about staying eligible so they could play football, basketball, or hockey. I think the best thing about high school sports--especially team sports--is that it gives young people something to really care about.
I enjoy my teaching job, but one thing I find frustrating about it is the lack of effort demonstrated by too many students. That is one reason I loved coaching hockey so much--lack of effort was definitely not a problem. Watching high school kids put every bit of their hearts and souls into something the way the kids did who played on teams I coached and on teams I coached against was nothing less than inspirational. I don’t know how many times I saw players do things I never thought they’d be capable of, and they seemingly did it through sheer force of will. And they did it because they cared so much about their team and their teammates. These kids wanted to play through injuries they had no business trying to play through--cuts, bruises, strains, and sprains--while some of their classmates took a day off from school anytime they sneezed or got a runny nose. During my thirty-two years in coaching, I never heard an "I don’t care" from a player who hadn't performed well. There has to be great value in that, and if anyone thinks that by taking sports away from kids that this concern will be transferred to academics, they are dreaming.
When we enter our middle ages, and we think back to our high school days, it is not the time we spent in our English, math, or history classes that we think of. It is those times on the football or baseball fields, the basketball court, or the hockey rink. For those who were never in sports, it might be the school play or the choir or band concerts. This is not my original thought, by the way, and it is not a coach or even a teacher who first shared this thought with me. It was my doctor.
Once again, strong proponents of academics might think it shouldn't be this way, but it is. And if they think that those very valuable and memorable high school experiences that people of my generation had can be replaced for the high school kids of the future if sports are taken away from them, I think they are very wrong.