An interesting article by Mike Nichols, at theNorthwestern.com (Commentary: High school sports need re-examination) came across my desk recently causing a deep pause in thought. Traditionally, I don’t comment on commentaries, as I usually write them, however, in this case I had to make an exception.
In that linked article above, there are statements made regarding high school sports and schooling that leave me scratching my head. As a veteran in education (33 years), former athlete and coach, and parent of athletes, my experience tells me that some of the “lines” drawn to form conclusions in this cited piece are, well…untrue. Basically, in my humble opinion, it’s riddled with inaccurate assumptions.
The article initiates the conversation by stating how far behind American students are in studies of math, science, and reading in comparison to their counterparts in other countries; something I won’t take argument with. However, it then goes on to infer the cause of student failure to be too much attention on high school sports.
Using a former sports editor as the “voice of reason” (Dennis Hernet), Mr. Nichols explains how Hernet overhears foreign exchange students “remark that, in addition to our shorter school days and lower quality classes, our schools – rather than communities – are the primary sponsors of sports teams.” This is all through Dennis’ involvement in the Rotary Club's student exchange program.
In a phone conversation with Hernet, Nichols states:
“…Hernet said he gets how sports instills discipline and leadership. He sees how competitive athletes are often successful in life. But said, ‘I still believe in my heart and mind that too much time is taken out of the classroom for athletics.’”
Ok, he gets how sports “instills discipline and leadership,” how “athletes are often successful in life,” but then goes on to say that he believes they are “taken out of the classroom for athletics” too often, thus, implying this is a reason for lower academic performance.
Now I suppose I can only speak for the schools I have worked at in my 33-year career, but kids do not miss that much classroom time for their school sports. Oh yes, it does happen on occasion, but these kids are still required to do all the same academic work their non-athletic counterparts must do. And, I’m pretty sure I’ve read that the majority of athletes show higher average grades than their non-athlete counterparts. How does that fit into the equation I wonder?
Mr. Nichols goes on to use another example, one from a teacher no less. Here is how Nichols recanted her views:
“One Wisconsin high school teacher I spoke to the other day noted how some of the families in her school won't take vacations during regular spring break because they don't want their kids to miss sports practices that take place during the vacation week. So they pull their kids out of class before or after break and travel then instead. You can miss class, in other words, but don't even think about missing practice.”
Ok, this is definitely a problem. One (as a teacher) I see as well. However, it is not something specific to athletes, taking students out of school to go on vacation. No way. This is something I see across the board, with students and families as a whole. Not a lot of them, but enough to be of concern.
In addition, does anyone else see the “real” problem in that statement quoted above? To me it is as clear as a bell. It is not the involvement in athletics that is at issue; it is more a problem with setting priorities that is to blame for one not being at school.
Most people I know, most colleagues I work with, their attitude would be this, “you don’t miss school to take a vacation, that does not happen, and guess what, you don’t miss practice either, we will find another time to take a vacation.” This is especially true from high school age on up. At the younger ages, and with general non-competitive programs, practice or “park district” type class might be missed to take a vacation but school…no way.
As valiant as Mr. Nichols efforts might be to lay the blame for U.S. student academic failings (on the world stage) right on the doorstep of high school sports, from my perspective, it doesn’t come close to being able to do so.
In fact, I don’t believe it would be going out on a limb at all to say that we could completely remove sports from all high schools and it would do nothing for our math, science, and reading scores. It might even hurt some, maybe many.
The educational woes in this country are a far more complex issue than what many might guess. They are certainly much larger and too multifaceted for me to try and highlight in one post or article as the solution is likely as multidimensional as the problem. And it is unquestionably not an issue I would associate whatsoever with high school sports, as they help to instill “discipline and leadership” and increase the chances of athletes becoming more “successful in life,” but that’s just my experience talking…