What is the Purpose of High School Sports?

This is the second of three essays I wrote in response to a question posed on August 8, 2015 by the Lancaster (PA) Editorial Board.  


What is the Purpose of High School Sports?

School sponsored, elite athletics have evolved to a point where a solid argument can be made that their overall impact on our academic values and educational priorities has become more negative than positive. And we are all responsible.

I say this as the son of a high school football coach, I played basketball well enough to receive a college scholarship and play professionally. After playing, I earned a Ph.D., with a concentration on the role of athletics in the educational setting and then carved out a career in college athletics administration. Throughout, I was driven by the belief in the power and potential of athletics as an educational tool. I still strongly believe in that potential.

But if there is anything I’ve learned in almost 50 years as an athlete and as someone who has worked in the field and studied, researched and written about the role of sport in our educational system and society, it is this. The power and potential of sports as an activity to teach valuable life lessons and contribute in relevant and timely ways to the mission of an educational institution depends upon whether we, as parents, coaches, administrators, teachers, faculty,community leaders, media and fans, keep them in the proper perspective.

Yes, there are many examples of how sport has changed young people’s lives, mine included. Yes, there are endless anecdotes about how high school sports have united communities and served as a “hook” for kids who would drop out if not for athletic participation. But those lessons learned, “engagement” impacts and community building benefits are not unique to sport. Activities such as music and the theater arts can do the same.

Sports, like the arts, are simply tools. The ability and potential for these activities to yield positive educational and community outcomes is dependent upon the environment within which they occur. Unfortunately, as a result of the win at all cost culture that has come to drive these programs, the environment surrounding elite athletics has become badly distorted. School sports have become more about the end result (winning and advancing to the next level) than the process (education). As that culture has grown and intensified, sports’ effectiveness as an educational tool has, in a corresponding fashion, decreased. The end result is that we have come to value athletic achievement far more than educational excellence.

The evidence to support this claim is abundant: from overzealous parents, to ego-driven coaches, to the physical toll (in particular to the brain), to cases of academic fraud to misplaced spending priorities. And now, we have the revelation highlighted by Pia Fenmore (“Keeping an eye on the mental health of our student-athletes,” Health and Fitness, Aug. 2) about how athletes suffer depression at a greater rate than non-athletes due to increased pressure to specialize in and train for a specific sport year-round. These impacts would not be a concern except for the fact that the primary justification for sponsoring athletics is that they are an educational tool that effectively supplements the academic mission of the institution in relevant and timely ways.

That being the case, it is no stretch to say that elite school athletics has evolved to a point where it’s educational return is no longer strong enough to warrant the enormous investment of time, effort, energy and emotion that we place in them. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of anecdotes and examples of sports’ positive impact on individuals. But thanks to the culture that has come to dominate the enterprise, interscholastic athletics have, on balance, become significantly less effective as an educational tool. While we may be getting an excellent entertainment return on investment, the educational return on investment is suspect at best.

Elite school sports, as currently conducted, is not meeting its’ educational purposes. And if an activity is no longer meeting the primary justification for its existence, that’s a problem, particularly in today’s world where schools are facing increasing expectations regarding providing students an education worthy of the 21st century with decreasing resources and community support.

That is why two related questions posed in an LNP editorial earlier this month (“on stress and high school sports, Aug. 8) - “What is the point of school sports? Are they meant to benefit our athletes, or us?” are so critical.

Should the purpose of school sports be to sponsor elite programs that heap the vast majority of their resources, time, effort and emotion on a few elite athletes and teams, largely to entertain the community, while pushing everyone else to the sidelines as spectators? Or, is a more appropriate role for school sports to sponsor broad-based sports activities designed to teach and encourage participation in activities that can be practiced for a lifetime? In other words, should the purpose of our educational investment in athletics be to develop the next NFL quarterback or to instill in all students a familiarity with and commitment to life long health and fitness habits? To be more precise, is the purpose of high school sports entertainment or to improve public health in this, one of the most obese nations on the planet?

That is the question we have to consider. And in the final essay of this three part series, we’ll explore what such an alternative system might look like.