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A case for the case against high school sports

I met Greg Pinel at a bar in Manhattan back in late March. It was a corner joint on the far east side in the shadows of the Queensboro Bridge (or the 59th St Bridge, depending on what side of it you call home). On a lead from a British friend of mine, I was drinking at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to kickoff that day’s two Six Nations Rugby matches over in Europe. There were fewer than two hands' worth of fingers needed to count the other Americans at this bar. Greg was seated next to us, alone in the tight pub, and spared our group a chair. He's not afraid of conversing with strangers.

Greg said he played rugby at a competitive level a decade or so ago while living in England, and his passion had since outlasted his body's durability. Our discussions during the matches uncovered a shared interest and knowledge in sports of all kinds, but particularly hockey—a connection known to elude many Canadians residing south of their border. But I also learned that Greg runs adult soccer leagues that support teams for underfunded public schools with scant athletic resources. There’s a story in there somewhere.

I began researching that story (with the intention of writing a published piece, but that fell flat). I read about high school sports more intently, and in looking for outfits with missions similar to Greg’s group, came upon a line of thinking—now somewhat obvious—for the removal of sports from schools entirely. I had not given that any thought at all. Mainly because the concept of sports is so culturally glued to the high school experience in the United States, especially for people like me who attended middle-class schools with what appear to be indefatigable athletic budgets. Even though, aside from the half season of ninth grade basketball where I sunk precisely one free throw, I never played any sports for my high school—I played hockey and skateboarded, the former politely recognized by the administration and the latter scorned—football, basketball, and baseball games dominated our plans. What else would we have done on a Friday night? For the portion of the student body that comprised the many boys’ and girls’ rosters, sports were inseparable from school. That reality created a bias preventing me from thinking about the alternatives until now.

That’s how it was for Amanda Ripley too, who played soccer in New Jersey from age 7 to 17. “I was relieved to find a place where girls were not expected to sit quietly or look pretty,” the journalist wrote in 2013. “Like most Americans, I can rattle off the many benefits of high-school sports: exercise…sportsmanship and perseverance, school spirit, and just plain fun.” But, while those things all matter to a student’s maturation, Ripley, author of the book The Smartest Kids in the World, who penned the 2013 Atlantic article called the “The Case Against High-School Sports,” began to wonder what kind of message placing an almost maniacal emphasis on school sports sends to kids. Ripley cites one analysis of a school in the Pacific Northwest that spent $328 per student on math instruction and $1,348 per cheerleader—in a district that claimed math was its “primary focus.”

Many schools in other countries aren’t as distracted with youth sports logistics, leaving it up to the community to organize clubs. This way, money isn't diverted from academics to sports, from non-players to players. (Although, it’s worth noting that the U.S. still outspends every country in the world in K-12 education per student.) Of course there’s an argument for the discipline sports instill, and some students would come untethered to the classroom without sports as an anchor. But as it stands, explains Ripley, “now more than 20 countries are pulling off better high-school-graduation rates than we are, with mostly nominal athletic offerings.”

Ripley makes a compelling case: sports are no doubt valuable to society, but in an era where budget crunches seem to be the norm, would the attention, energy, and resources high schools pour into sports be better off spent on reversing America’s academic slide? “America has not found a way to dramatically improve its children’s academic performance over the past 50 years,” Ripley laments, “but other countries have—and they are starting to reap the economic benefits.”

I’m not sure, yet. Certainly improving academic practices and results would be supported by those citizens that, as the New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz must have only-sort-of-jokingly suggested, “are tired of explaining things to idiots, particularly when the things in question are so painfully obvious.” And the economic boost could help. More schools like the one from Texas in Ripley’s piece—whose scholastic performance was brutal prior to folding its teams—will have to experiment with suspending their athletic departments to determine the efficacy of the concept. For many students in underserved public school districts, the absence of sports teams from the school is already a reality, which just highlights the broader social, economic and racial disparities so prevalent in this country. During a March city council meeting, a group of students from the outer reaches of New York City protested its lack of athletic opportunity and inferior facilities as compared to schools with mostly white student bodies. Taking a page from the Tommie Smith and John Carlos 1968 Olympics playbook, the Bronx students, according to reports, wore “black gloves on raised fists [and] unfurled a giant banner on the balcony [that] read '#civilrightsmatter'.” So whether schools should even be in the business of sports—and how communities should provide athletic options if not—is a conversation worth having.

Greg says his organization runs its soccer leagues as if they belonged to the school, to connect the students and the teams to enflame school spirit without burning schools' coffers. I don't know the full ins and outs, but this sounds like the kind of public-private relationship New York City officials envisioned when they created the Fund for Public Schools in 2002. And perhaps there’s a framework at play that can be scaled to incorporate a larger number of schools that don’t have athletic departments, for whatever reason. We’ll see.

I spewed this all over Greg recently in between more swigs of beer. He told me about transferring high schools as a teenager in Burnaby, British Columbia. The first one had sports; his grades sucked. The second one didn’t, and his grades didn't suck. Greg was the kind of student Amanda Ripley envisions in this country.

(Top photo: Will Bredderman/New York Observer)

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