Saturday, April 28, 2007

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.


Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Good post. Two observations:
1. You are absolutely correct that schools need Athletic Directors with backbone and Administrations that support the teams.
2. You mention the referendum that passes because sports might go away. Certainly athletics can bring a town together, but what about those school districts that are divided into three or more high schools.

I bring up point number two because I coach in a district that is split up into three high schools. We are the only district among our competition that is not a single high school district--though that will change soon. Additionally, one of the other local districts who has two high schools is divided by wealth. The one high school serves a wealthier population where athletes have access to much better equipment and outside resources.
In all, I firmly believe in athletics as positive for students. But, clearly, I am frustrated with the system as it is.

4/28/2007 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Denever said...

"When 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."

Well, actually, for some of us, it is (sort of - I wouldn't say it was the time we spent in those classes that was memorable; it was the books we read and the papers we wrote and what we learned from each other and our teachers).

That's not to argue for or against athletics in schools like yours ... I'm just sayin'. Maybe you should suggest that your doctor practice the gentle art of speaking for himself. :)

4/28/2007 8:00 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Shocking as it is, Dennis, I tend to agree with you here. And I was never really involved with high school sports.

Mr. McNamar brings up costs of the sport program, but doesn't really put his numbers into any kind of perspective. For 19 sports teams, he estimates the full coaching staff (head and assistant coaches) costs $93k. He does throw in a couple of somewhat questionable teams (bowling? I know my school didn't have bowling or golf teams). Still, $93k would be roughly the salary and benefits of one additional full-time teacher. Even assuming no academic benefit at all, the value of high school sports programs as an anti-drug and anti-delinquency measure has to be worth that cost.

The sense of entitlement he refers to is indeed largely a matter of how the program is implemented rather than whether it should exist. To the extent that it's due to the publically competitive nature of sports themselves, it serves more as an example of what academics might strive for -- and as notice of what can happen in successful academic schools.

Of course, it doesn't help that his final point is a single, supposedly "cogent" word -- parents. This style of "argument" is pretty repugnant. He doesn't actually say what's wrong with parents, or how eliminating high school sports would fix the problem. You sum up his argument better than he does -- and I suspect have more experience with the actual subject matter.

Looking at some of Mr. McNamar's other posts, he seems to have a good head on his shoulders, and he does indicate that he might feel differently in the next two weeks.

And by the way, thanks for your kind comments on my blog, and the link on your blogroll.

4/29/2007 12:43 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mr. McNamar, believe me, I understand your frustration. And as I said, I think your points are valid. High school sports should be part of a student's education; not the be all and end all in itself, and some people make it out to be just that. Overall, I don't like the direction that youth and high school sports have been going in the last several years, and like you, I am very concerned that we might end up wrecking a good thing.

Denever I think it's great that your memories of high school consist of the books you read and the papers you wrote, and I wish that were true for more people. However, I believe my doctor is closer to the norm than you are.

Crypticlife, for someone who was never involved in high school sports, you make a couple of great points. I really like your point about sports serving as an example for what academics should be striving for.

By the way, I'm glad to see you're still chiming in on my posts. Now that you've started your own blog, if you're like me, you might have trouble doing that as often as you'd like. But thank YOU for making my blog so much more interesting these last few months.

4/29/2007 3:48 AM  
Anonymous Denever said...

"I believe my doctor is closer to the norm than you are."

I agree - that's exactly why I wrote "some of us" rather than "most of us" or even "many of us." Contrast that with your (or your doctor's) unqualified "we" in "When we enter" and "we think back."

That said, I'd be willing to bet that approximately 50% of the people now "entering [their] middle ages" do not think back much to their time on the football and baseball fields, the basketball court, or the hockey rink for two very simple reasons: (1) they're female, and (2) Title IX didn't instantly affect school sports at the high school level.

I'd be willing to place a second, smaller bet: that the middle-aged women who *do* think of their time on the fields in high school attended private girls' schools, which have traditionally encouraged their students to do much more than cheer on the male athletes.

4/29/2007 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Betty said...

Parents put pressure on all teachers. My daughter was in orchestra, and believe me, there were a lot of parents wanting their kids to be first chair. When I taught middle school, some of my students only worked hard so that they could participate in sports.

4/30/2007 6:40 AM  
Blogger sailorman said...

My school is known for (and gets in the papers for) their football tam. And their soccer team.

They have an acceptable math program.

What would I like?

Well, I'd like it if my school were known for the brilliance of its math program, and had a merely acceptable football team. Wouldn't THAT be nice?

Want sports? Sure! Just don't cut into the school day (or, much, into the school budget.) And stop pretending sports are even vaguely as important for students as are academics.

4/30/2007 9:59 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Sailorman, your last sentence confuses me. I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to.

The sport I coached was very important to me, and I think that any sports that students play should be very important to them. But just so you know where I stand, last year I realized that the demands of my teaching load and being a head coach were becoming too much for me. The only way I could keep doing both was if I cut back on the preparation for my classes, and began to do things in class that would involve less work and correcting for me. I made my choice--the coaching had to go.

4/30/2007 1:45 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...


An acceptable math program? Here, in the US??

Dennis is responding to a post that says "let's eliminate high school sports", after all. Rejecting that position isn't incompatible with not cutting into the school day (unless you're saying get rid of PE classes) or valuing academics much more highly. Actually, I almost agreed with Mr. McNamar when I thought his position was merely to let budget cuts hit sports programs equally (or more than) academic programs.

Thanks, Dennis -- I'll try to comment reasonably regularly; your blog was the first edu-blog I felt compelled to comment on, after all. Incidentally, my comment on academics mimicking sports was meant to cut both ways: both the good points and the bad points of what sports encourages could come from a competitive academic program. I know, I've met enough intellectual snobs to often prefer the company of the less academic.

4/30/2007 3:56 PM  
Anonymous Jude said...

The problem with school sports is that they do receive an inordinate amount of attention and, especially funds. I was a high school librarian at a school with no book budget. Although all educational budgets had been zeroed out, the sports teams hadn't been cut at all. Just maintaining a football field is prohibitively expensive. I like the idea of intramurals, or of less elitist sports than football, the big money grabber. But it doesn't matter what I think. Sports are here to stay. I think that *anything* else, from libraries to music to academics would be cut before athletic programs at high schools. In some states, you get the feeling that they wouldn't even have a school band if it weren't for the need to have them play at athletic events. I blogged about one example on March 8th this year, but I could give you many more (e.g., I was subbing for the track coach; the track meet was cancelled because of the weather; they kept me as a sub so the track coach could work on the upcoming track meet which the school was hosting). What a waste of time, effort, and mostly, money.

5/01/2007 7:46 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Jude, I said in my post that I think high school sports is worth the money, and I stand by that. Since I coached hockey, I'd better not be taking shots at football. But as I said to Mr. McNamar, I think athletics should be treated as part of an education; not a be all and end all in itself. I really believe that the problem isn't that the public cares too much about sports; I think they care too little about libraries, music, and academics.

5/01/2007 2:38 PM  
Anonymous Lee Dixon said...

I have two reactions to this debate.

First, this is another example of the change in viewpoint that is caused by administrative failure. Most high schools have effective leadership, and that includes athletic administration. But when it breaks down, it's easy to see why folks would question the entire enterprise.

On the other hand, unless Minnesota is very disimilar to Florida or Indiana, Dennis is painting a picture of the past rather than the present. Nowadays, high school sports are great for the athletes who participate. Nobody... and I mean nobody... except the parents of these kids... attends or cares about high school sports. Even in football, Florida championship teams rarely draw an audience anymore. Basketball seating capacity is normally a few hundred seats... and they are empty. Indiana high school gyms are empty for basketball. Unheard of in my glory days of the 60's and 70's. Most of the benefits would still accrue to the athletes if the activity was run under AAU or similar auspices.

5/03/2007 8:11 PM  
Blogger iankilburn said...


I have written an expose´ of the Waldorf school movement, which is said to be the fastest-growing independent school movement in the world. As such, it represents a significant threat to public school education in the USA.

Waldorfs have actually begun to invade the public school system. Since 1991, Waldorfs have offered teacher training workshops, magnet schools, and charter schools, all impinging on public education and seeking public financing.

Waldorf schools claim to be nonsectarian, but in fact they have a concealed spiritualist agenda. The curriculum is based on the teachings of a self-proclaimed clairvoyant and mystic named Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Children attending Waldorf schools are subtly indoctrinated in Steiner’s weird religion, which he called Anthroposophy. In short, Waldorfs are actually religious schools.

The expose´ is fully researched and documented. It will stand up to the closest scrutiny.

You can find the expose´ posted on the Web at

Please feel free to link to either site and/or to inform your members of the information I convey there. I believe this is a vital matter for the defense of public education in the USA.

--Roger Rawlings

P.S. My background: I am a Waldorf school graduate (1964). Subsequently, I became a tenured member of a college English department, a book editor, and book author (THE LAST AIRMEN, Harper & Row, 1989).

5/20/2007 8:05 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

I went to a high school which didn't teach trig, calc, or even have a comprehensive english program. We did, however, have a million dollar gym, basketball, track and volleyball teams. I had to spend a couple of years in college getting the education I could have gotten in high school (and believe me, I took the hardest classes they offered). I see the same pattern in alot of places, especially small and rural schools; I think it needs to stop.

8/28/2009 6:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is my strong opinion that academics are more important in a school curriculum, for the reason that athletics will not help a student learn the skills needed for obtaining a job.

10/28/2009 9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need a complete change in the way schools are funded. Local home owners should not be paying for outrageously expensive high school sports programs. Period. Yes, PE is important, but the values that sporting competition instills can be taught in ways that are less expensive. I'm all for PE classes that include everyone. But the cost of maintaining football fields and stadiums is insane, as is the cost of transporting kids all over the place to play. Why is the competitive blood lust of one small group of kids so important that the physical well-being of every other kid in a school shortchanged? And the people invoved in this business where I live are not ethical in the way they go about getting their money for these programs. This is an entirely local decision, by the way. But property taxes for schools are for education, not for creating a chance for a select few or one person to go on to a college where they might end up having a chance to make a fortune playing professional ball, feeding the TV advertising media tigers whose existence depends on linking their inferior nutritionally void or other worthless products to images of sex and money and rah-rah manly prowess. Why should non-jocks have to support this fraud with huge property taxes? There is absolutely no justification.

1/25/2011 5:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At our school sports are 1.5% of the total budget. Is that too much? If our teachers would go to a $5 increase in their fully funded health plan it would save over $500,000 on our budget that could be used to hire back some of the aids and teachers cut recently. However, if you are at the top of the salary food chain, what cares do you have about those on the lower rungs.

8/13/2013 9:25 AM  

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