The US needs a lesson on high school sports

High School Football

If only these people were as passionate about high school education as they are about high school football.


Around the world, the US is known for its obsession with sports. Most US citizens probably don’t even realize how much time, energy, and money they spend on sports. However, this fixation does not stop with professional sports: Americans pay more attention to — and place more importance on — their high school sports than anyone else in the world.

When so many school districts around the country are struggling with budgetary issues, why is it that funding to key areas of the curriculum — for example: math, science, art, drama and music — is cut before extra-curricular sports?

Over at The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley asks this very question. Here’s an excerpt:

When I surveyed about 200 former exchange students last year, in cooperation with an international exchange organization called AFS, nine out of 10 foreign students who had lived in the U.S. said that kids here cared more about sports than their peers back home did. A majority of Americans who’d studied abroad agreed.

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?

The article also tells the story of the Premont Independent School District (PISD). In 2012, having seemingly exhausted all other options — including firing employees, closing schools, doing without art or music teachers, and sealing off the lab-infested science labs — PISD Interim Superintendent Ernest Singleton decided to do the unthinkable: he cancelled all of the school’s extracurricular sports.

Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.

“I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms,” says Singleton, who has spent 15 years as a principal and helped turn around other struggling schools. “This was the worst I’ve seen in my career. The kids were in control. The language was filthy. The teachers were not prepared.” By suspending sports, Singleton realized, he could save $150,000 in one year. A third of this amount was being paid to teachers as coaching stipends, on top of the smaller costs: $27,000 for athletic supplies, $15,000 for insurance, $13,000 for referees, $12,000 for bus drivers. “There are so many things people don’t think about when they think of sports,” Singleton told me. Still, he steeled himself for the town’s reaction. “I knew the minute I announced it, it was going to be like the world had caved in on us.”

While there are better ways of evaluating student learning than standardized tests results and graduation rates, the point remains: the US obsession with high school sports undermines the purported purpose of a high school education.

[Editor’s note: in this article, the term “Americans” is used solely due to convention and lack of a more appropriate term].

– Devin

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