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America is a sports-mad nation. Our love for professional and college athletics often begins right on the tee-ball field and races up through high school. Anyone who has ever taught or worked in an American high school is familiar with the immutable rhythm of the fall semester—first football game, big game against rival school, Homecoming game, and fingernail-biting last game of the season—that renews itself in the spring with basketball, baseball, and soccer while providing social glue and (we hope) some school spirit to help carry us through to the end of yet another school year.

All of this is as American as apple pie—and is peculiar to America. Most other nations, as much as they might enjoy their own sports, put nowhere near the emphasis on school athletics as we do. Therefore, it is worth asking two questions:

Do school athletics promote the educational mission of our public schools and would it be easier to make much needed—and long delayed—academic improvements to our schools if athletics took more of a back seat to the classroom?

Should we, as was recently the case in Texas, spend tens of millions of dollars to build a new high school football stadium for the greater glory of our adolescent gridiron heroes—or is this a red flag that our misplaced priorities have finally reached a new and dangerous level of absurdity?

It is self-evident to many that school sports are the greatest thing since sliced white bread; they build strong bodies, strong character, self-reliance, and teamwork skills while providing a steroidal dose of self-confidence that provides the foundation for happy and successful lives.

There is, of course, a tremendous difference between the learning to play the clarinet and learning how to run a post route against a Cover 2 defense, so it might be just a bit much to presume that all of the above benefits apply equally to both school athletics and school-based performing arts. In addition, there are two basic questions about the role of school athletics in relation to the educational mission of our schools that seem reasonable to raise:

1) Do we have useful data on the relationship between participation in school sports and academic achievement? Many of the studies that point to a positive correlation between being a player and being a student suffer from one obvious deficit: They were conducted by high school athletic associations or those associated with them, who are hardly the type of disinterested scientists whom we would like to have conduct this research.

In addition, the metrics of success are typically grades or graduation rates; these are problematic measures to use because grades can often be inflated because of pressures on teachers to pass athletes to keep them eligible to play—and completion rates can in turn be positively impacted by those same inflated grades.

We already know that high school diplomas are often loosely correlated with actual academic achievement. Perhaps we should look at the 15 percent of high school athletes (40 percent of basketball players and 35 percent of football players) who would not meet the higher minimum academic requirements required for incoming freshmen to play NCAA Division I sports starting in 2016. This is a hint at just how many high school athletes were pencil-whipped on to graduation to keep them eligible to play.

It would likely be much better to base conclusions about the effects of participation in school sports on metrics such as college preparedness based upon scores on standardized tests, but it is only recently that state standardized tests, due to the pressures of Common Core, began to make halting and uneven progress toward measures of actual college preparedness—and many states are now in full retreat regarding these higher test standards. Obtaining the data we need may be impossible—and until we can, we are captive to policy by anecdote.

Given the very high rates of college students requiring remedial coursework, we are pushed to one of two conclusions:

a) Either our nation’s non-athletes are piling into remedial courses when they enroll in college or

b) both athletes and non-athletes are suffering from low academic achievement, which calls into question the educational benefits of the time and money spent on school athletics in our nation’s public schools.

2) Interscholastic athletics programs in American public schools are very expensive, and we now live an era when, for the foreseeable future, school funding will be tight. Anyone who is expecting a sudden windfall of cash to descend on their community’s public schools will likely have quite a long wait. With the coffers empty in many states, cities, and towns, basic government services are being routinely curtailed, and public schools are not immune from this problem.

Many do not want to hear this, but the cost of athletics per student far exceeds the per-student cost of academics. This makes sense. Coaches need salaries or stipends, equipment and facilities cost money, transportation to games or matches must be provided, and insurance payments must be made.

The costs associated with athletics could be justified if our nation’s unique commitment to school athletics led to demonstrably better academic outcomes for our students, but this does not seem to be the case.

My foreign students have always been both befuddled and confused by the extraordinary role that athletics play in American schools—and their own academic achievements seem not to have suffered for lack of a ball to kick, hit, or throw. Despite the truism that athletic participation is inextricably linked to academic improvement, the United States lags far behind its international peers who insist their students spend more time in the classroom and less playing games.

Perhaps the “truism” is not as true as many promoters of school athletics would like to believe.

There are, of course, other variables and intangibles that might be considered, but from a hard-headed dollars-and-cents educational perspective, questions about the outsized role athletics play in our schools are worth asking. I welcome any comments or suggestions readers might have on this topic, and perhaps I can address some of your thoughts in future post

Also published on Head in the Sand (headinthesandblog.org) July 21, 2016