Let's Talk About Sports' Role in Our High Schools


On August 8, 2015, the Editorial board of the Lancaster (PA) Newspapers (LNP) printed an essay (“On stress and high school sports”) that called for a community-wide discussion of the role of sports in our high schools. In strong and direct terms, the board raised some very important, fundamental and long overdue questions regarding the role of athletics in our high schools. In lamenting what high school sports has become, they used terms such as “something is seriously amiss”, “this is insanity” and asked the following critical question: “What is the purpose of school athletics?” Following is the first of three essays I was asked to write in response to the issues they raised that appeared in the Sunday August 23, 2015 edition of LNP. 

Let’s Talk About Sports’ Role in Our High Schools

In a perfect world, all high school activities would be fully funded. But when it comes to establishing and funding educational priorities and programs, it is clear that we no longer live in a perfect world.

Today, schools are subject to growing pressure to meet increased standards and expectations to provide our children with an education worthy of the 21st century. These demands have to be met in an environment of declining resources. Our world is changing at breathtaking speed and the educational challenges inherent in responding to that change are daunting.

Communities and school boards must be more open, honest, thoughtful and strategic regarding how to allocate resources, including for sports and other extracurricular activities.

When program cuts are necessary, priorities must be set and difficult choices made. And because these challenges and funding gaps will only increase, these decisions are only going to become more difficult.

These decisions must be made with the recognition that America’s economy has changed from one based on industrial might to one driven by technology, creativity, collaboration and innovation. Simply put, every issue we face - whether relating to health care, the environment or geopolitics - is becoming more complex in this increasingly fast paced and interconnected world. To effectively address those increasingly complex challenges, we must develop in our populace a corresponding increase in creativity and the ability to think at a higher level.

Fundamental questions regarding which programs to fund and how much each should receive must focus on which activities garner the best educational return on investment in today’s world. Should funding for elite sports, for example, be scaled back in favor of more broad-based sports programs, or theater, art and music? We can no longer blindly continue to sponsor activities based only on anecdotal evidence, simply because we have always done so or because a particular activity’s “lobby” screams the loudest.

If we are to make strategic, effective and responsible decisions regarding educational priorities and funding, we must rethink the criteria upon which we have made those decisions. Decisions of such magnitude must also be guided by fact, data and research. Fortunately, there is a growing amount of research on the impact of elite sports, and in particular, football, on student learning and engagement, brain function, academic environment and health to draw from.

In the end, the dialogue surrounding these decisions must be more thorough, reasoned, honest and data driven. With increased expectations and decreased resources come a reduction in the acceptable margin of error. We have to make every education dollar count. Just as a business must continually evaluate every component of its enterprise to determine if that element is relevant, productive and continues to meet the justifications for its existence, so too must our educational institutions. Simply because sports are entertaining and have been a part of the academic enterprise for over a century does not exempt them from such evaluation and scrutiny.

This is an important and timely discussion. The stakes are simply too high to continue to sponsor activities simply because we have always done so, not matter how entertaining.

But all of this context and dialogue is of no use without the courage and commitment to go where the logic, truth and data take us. Because sports are so influential in our schools, we must critically assess their impact on our educational institutions and our society. This is no different from any other American institution. From our health care system to our welfare system, old ideas, programs, institutions and philosophies must continually be examined, refined and, if appropriate, restructured. And the fundamental standard of evaluation is utility. Do these institutions continue to serve the public in relevant and timely ways?

If, for example, athletics are exceeding their educational potential and expectations, then we should be investing even more effort, resources and emotion in them. But what if they are not? What, as parents, taxpayers and citizens, should we do? This is the fundamental frame of reference through which this discussion should take place.

Despite the fact that some of the answers may be uncomfortable or inconvenient, we should welcome this discussion and analysis because, if we approach it honestly, the end result will be better schools serving our children and communities more effectively. In the end, isn’t that what we all want and what our nation needs?