Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Sporting Life

As you might imagine, with my face now at the bottom of every story on The Mercury's new web site, it gets hard to go shopping without someone stopping me to tell me "you know what you should do a story on..."

That's OK, it comes with the territory and, more often than not, they are often pretty good story ideas.

But we can't always get to them all.

So the other day, a parent of a Pottstown High School student suggests I "highlight the fact that Pottstown High School athletes compete against much bigger and better funded athletic departments and still play with heart."

While this strikes me as a lovely sentiment, it is hardly "news" in the traditional sense, I replied.

As someone who played high school sports (Captain of the soccer team. No really. Stop laughing.), I understand the value of athletics, particularly in terms of team dynamics, teaching us to get along and work together with those with whom we might not otherwise associate.

(Flash forward to the adult work place.)

But it did get me wondering about the whole phenomena of high school sports.

Then, BAM!, no sooner does the thought hit my brain than this link to an article in The Atlantic arrives in my e-mailbox.

You'll forgive me blotting out my address. This post is
likely to piss off enough people as it is. I would just as
soon they not bring their arguments to my house.
Then the hard copy, at left, arrived in my actual mail box.

The case made in this article by writer Amanda Ripley is fairly straightforward, if not fraught with controversy for anyone educated in this country.

Her point is simple.

No other developed country in the world, pours as much focus and financial resources into high school athletics as the United States.

And, by what she sees as being no coincidence, all those countries are kicking our ass in terms of scores on math and science tests.

Now I'll be the first one to say those two facts laid side by side do not prove causality. 

But it is worth consideration, even if you would have a tough time raising the point without being shouted down by angry parents.

Here are some samples from the article: South Korea, whose 15-year-olds rank fourth in the world (behind Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong) on a test of critical thinking in math, Jenny’s classmates played pickup soccer on a dirt field at lunchtime. They brought badminton rackets from home and pretended there was a net. If they made it into the newspaper, it was usually for their academic accomplishments.
Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education. (The U.S. ranks 31st on the same international math test.) The challenges we do talk about are real ones, from under-trained teachers to entrenched poverty. But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?
 Another passage:
Even in eighth grade, American kids spend more than twice the time Korean kids spend playing sports, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics. In countries with more-holistic, less hard-driving education systems than Korea’s, like Finland and Germany, many kids play club sports in their local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would they?
It's a question few people would ask out loud in the United States; at least not without a helmet.

Understand, this is not to knock high school sports per se, so much as to ask the question: If we really are serious about wanting to improve education without bankrupting our society, why is this question never on the table?

I found this example of 'keeping up with
the Jones's' on the Internet.
If the primary job of a school is to provide an academic education, and we're failing to do that because some of the resources that could be devoted to the classroom are devoted to the gridiron and the hardwood, are we not failing in our primary responsibility?

Athletics are often lumped in with other "extras" like art and music when budgets get tight, but there are quite a few studies out there indicating the academic benefits of art and music. Fewer, at least that I am aware of, about athletics.

Often, this discussion only gets put on the table in terms of an illustration of how dire a district's finances are. And often enough this is done, cynically to some extent, to get people to pay attention and come out to demand their continuance.

That's what happened in 2011 in Pottstown, when student athletes, artists and musicians stormed the school board meeting, their parents in tow, pleading to maintain those programs.

Few if any of those parents returned to the school board to see how else money was being spent once they were assured their programs were safe.

I confess I was surprised to see this self-same discussion, inspired by the self-same article, raised in a discussion Facebook page for Pottsgrove parents, yes Pottsgrove, home of the mighty Falcons.

At least one parent there thought it worthy of discussion. (However I can no longer find it on that page, otherwise I would provide a link.)

But often enough, the complaint is not "why are we spending money on athletics when we're cutting teachers," but "why isn't our gym as nice as the district next door."

One need only sit in the audience when the construction of the Pottsgrove High School renovations was being discussed, to hear that more people were worried about how big the new gym would be, and whether or not artificial turf would be used on the fields, than about how well equipped the science labs would be, to know important athletics is to most American parents.

During the Pottsgrove meeting I sat through, one parent got up and said, with outrage in his voice, that Pottstown's gymnasium was nicer than Pottsgrove's.

Pottstown High School's gymnasium is quite nice.


We can't have that!

What would OJR say?

Talk about keeping up with the Jones's.

(To be fair, there was as much time spent discussing the need for better music facilities as well in those Pottsgrove meetings. But, as I said above, I have less problems with this as, there is ample evidence that students who learn and play music have improved math scores. In fact, most schools require student athletes to keep up their grades to continue to be eligible play in sports, a requirement rarely required, I believe, for student musicians.)

Then there is the argument about physical education.

But really, how many 30 and 40-year-olds are still playing football?
Pottstown has installed exercise equipment

at the middle school that is open to the public.

As the article points out, you can spend half the money we do on athletics and invest it in wellness and exercise programs, as Pottstown is now doing, and teach children to be healthy for life and still have money left over for academics.

Others argue it is the only way to keep marginal students interested and motivated in school, and a shot at a scholarship to attend college and frankly, I consider this to be the best argument.

As I wrote about last Sunday, it is not only better for a society to keep kids in school and our of jail, it's also less expensive.

But I would point out that it is the only way "we know of" to keep marginal kids motivated and in school. And couldn't some of them get academic scholarships if we put more energy into teaching them?

Sadly, this skewed balance in favor of sports is more the rule than the exception.

To make this point, Ripley profiles a failing school district in Texas which turned its academic fortunes around once it eliminated high school sports, football in particular.

Even just a year without football saw not only better focus and better test scores, but fewer fights and less discipline problems.

Understand, to some extent, I consider this a largely intellectual exercise.

I have trouble envisioning a place where the Penn State football program is deified above the college's academic standing also being the place that decides to spend more money on academics at the expense of athletics.

Further, I am always leery of ever trying to promote one goal by cannibalizing another. We do enough of that in Pottstown already.

And hey, my own employer has an entire section of the newspaper dedicated to the coverage of high
school sports, so I have to step carefully around the hypocrisy land mines that litter this conversation for me.

People have on occasion asked me why we don't have a "Schools" or "Music" section covering school academics with the same vigor and dedication with which we cover athletics.

The answer, of course, is money.

It's expensive to put out a newspaper section and there needs to be enough advertising to support it. There is little to no evidence the readership or advertising base exists to support these sections, which really proves the point about how ingrained athletics are in our collective psyche.

Besides, the photos from sports are much more dramatic than a student with their hand up, or playing an instrument.

In the end, I have little expectation that posting this will alter the fundamental conversation we have about education in this country, the outsized role sports plays in the education dynamic.

But it would be nice if we could at least talk about it.


  1. It would be nice just to start the games after school hours. So students could finish the school day and then go play sports. This would just be a start!

  2. One thing that I've noticed over the years is that when the school football team has a losing season, there is an uproar to replace the coach, athletic director or whom ever, but let the academic scores slide, not much is said.

  3. Pottstown SD has been slowly killing off athletics for several years now, starting with the hiring of a part time Athletic Director. As a PHS parent, honestly, I'd rather end sports all together rather than lose game after game, season after season. Its totally depressing.

  4. When I was the Pottstown School District AD every marking period I did a report that looked at Athletes compared to non athletic students. As a GROUP the students in athletics # 1 had better grades # 2 better attendance # 3 less discipline problems

    1. No doubt Mr. Armato - you were a great AD and cared very deeply about the students and it showed. Times are different now though. Athletics is good for student-athletes - but - only if its a strong, fair and well funded program. I worry about what it is doing to the hearts and minds of these kids to get clobbered (and often ridiculed) by the other schools in the PAC10.

  5. I agree with you Evan, 100%. There needs to be a dialogue on this issue. While in college I witnessed many members of the football team being 'carried' through their classes by the professors just so they could keep their grades high enough to stay on the team and keep their scholarships. I was appalled at the time and still am. Now I have 2 children in the school system, a boy and a girl, neither of whom are interested in playing sports. Actually, my son would love to but he has a disability that prevents him from participating. While he has found clubs to join, they are often underfunded and overlooked. They are so overlooked that when mentioning one of them on his welcome page, the principal misspelled it. My daughter is very involved in the music program, but that too is treated like a second-class citizen. Starting this year, the members of the music program can no longer be pulled from classes a few times a yr to attend an extra practice. I must mention that those practices will be at night, AFTER the sports practices are over because they cannot interfere with them. While I have no problem with that, I had to ask why those students who play sports still leave early on game days, missing precious class instruction time sometimes multiple times a week? When I did pose that question I was told that the school had no control over when the games were scheduled. Not really much of an answer. If, in our district and across the country, the Arts and academics were as well funded and as highly emphasized as sports we would be undoubtedly be right up there in the ranks.