On the Sidelines or in the Band: Participation Vs. Spectatorship and the Educational Process

One of the primary purposes of an educational institution is to instill in students not simply an understanding of specific knowledge (numbers, words or dates), but a lifelong love of learning. Further, it is safe to say that clearly the most effective way to learn the lessons taught through sports or other activities, is actually participating in those activities as opposed to simply observing them. Therefore, when evaluating our investment in school programs and extracurricular activities, consideration should be given to whether that activity is something you can continue to participate in and learn from long after graduation.

The purpose of this essay is to assess the effectiveness of football versus music as it applies to lifelong participation and learning.

Before proceeding, it is important to dispel the notion that team sports are unique in their potential to teach skills and lessons in teamwork and to build character in participants. The fact is there is no difference between the types of lessons learned and character traits obtained through participation in football or other team sports and involvement in a music ensemble or band. Skills such as collaboration, communication, discipline and personal responsibility are learned through all of these activities. That being the case, in tough economic times, when considering educational investment in football versus music programs, education and community leaders must consider additional issues and benefits of these activities, including the issue of whether these activities can be practiced for a lifetime.

Football is a sport where 96 percent of high school players will never again play the game after high school and less than one percent will do so after college. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) website, 5.8 percent, or less than one in seventeen of all high school senior boys, play interscholastic football. Of those, approximately, one in fifty, or 1.8 percent, will get drafted by an NFL team. Or, put another way, only eight in 10,000 or approximately 0.08 percent of high school seniors playing interscholastic football will eventually be drafted by an NFL team. (NCAA.org.) Yes, life long lessons are learned during those high school years. But for 96 percent of participants, football’s ability to continue to teach for life ends after their final high school game. Further, none of those participants are women. While there are many sports in which you can participate for your entire life - swimming, golf and tennis - can be played into one’s seventies and eighties, these are not the sports in which we are investing the most resources. That distinction goes to football, an activity where participation for all but the most elite ends at age eighteen.

A few years ago, I found myself trudging on the elliptical machine at my local YMCA alongside a 70 year-old man.  He looked in great shape. He told me that he was not training simply to remain in shape. He was training to play baseball in a local over-50 league. And he’s a pitcher! People marveled that he was still playing competitively at age seventy, so much so that he was the subject of a feature story in the local newspaper. His playing at age seventy was quite an accomplishment and certainly noteworthy because he was the lone seventy-year-old in the league. No one came close to him in age.

Contrast this to the number of musicians who are still playing at age seventy, eighty or even ninety. While both music and sports can teach by participation and observation, music’s potential as a life-long educational tool is far more lasting and powerful because the opportunity to participate as opposed to simply observing as a spectator is possible regardless of age.

In short, there are infinitely more sixty, seventy, and eighty-year-olds still playing music together and, in the process, learning from each other, challenging themselves and keeping their minds sharp than there are twenty-five year-olds playing football. Further, an additional benefit of music is that an eighty-year-old bassist or pianist can play on equal footing with an eighteen-year-old guitarist. Not so in competitive sports, and in particular, football. That being the case, from a long-term educational return on investment perspective, music is far superior to football, if for no other reason than the ability to remain actively involved in music never ends.
If participation in an activity, as opposed to simply observing, is a more effective way to learn important lessons and achieve personal growth, we should invest in activities that allow active participation to the greatest extent possible for as long as possible. If music is an activity that one can actively engage in and thus continue to learn from for a lifetime, shouldn’t we be encouraging the development and funding of such programs? Shouldn’t the potential for lifelong participation and learning through music be strongly considered when compared to investment in sports such as football, where the opportunity to continue to actively participate is limited and usually ends with the final high school game?

If so, the answer is indisputable: Music results in a far better and more powerful long-term educational return on investment than football as it applies to the issue of lessons learned and personal growth achieved through participation.