Thursday, March 24, 2005

Are Public School Sports Programs a Good Thing?

I don’t think I represent the average guy. Of course, I guess the average guy doesn’t blog. What I mean is that I’m not into competitive sports.

That is, with a few exceptions, I don’t watch sports. I don’t participate in competitive sports. I don’t enjoy competitive sports. I enjoy some private and personal sports: biking, hiking, weight lifting, skiing, etc. I have enjoyed watching the Olympics from time to time. I have also been faithfully supporting and attending my children’s little league soccer, baseball, basketball, and karate practices and games for nearly a decade.

Having suffered through playing (or sitting on the bench for) three seasons of baseball and one season of football as a kid, I vowed that I would never force any of my kids to play sports. But what does a non-sports-oriented dad do when his kids want to play sports? He enthusiastically supports and cheers for them.

I’m very grateful to my children’s coaches, but I could never do what they do. I understand the basic rules of the various sports my kids play. I can tell you when something is good and when something is bad. But I don’t understand, nor do I really care to comprehend, the strategies involved – how to think sports.

When a group of guys gathers, the discussion frequently turns to sports, especially collegiate and professional sports. I am utterly clueless in such encounters. When other guys talk about “the game,” I usually don’t even know what sport season it is. When other guys drop the names of famous athletes, I rarely know who they are talking about. What seems to cause the greatest consternation among other guys is that I don’t even care. They’re passionate while I’m apathetic. I can’t comprehend how one feels personally invested in a group of professional athletes.

But what I have learned from watching my kids in little league sports is that there is an inherent value in sports that I had not previously recognized. The benefits are not just physical, but also social and mental.

This brings me to what for some is a very emotional topic. With the omnipresent problem of struggling to adequately fund public education, why do schools continue to sponsor extracurricular sports programs?

On the one hand, I have already conceded that participation in sports provides educational benefits. Besides the athletes, when schools field competition teams students learn about what it takes to run a team. Some students end up working behind the scenes and learning things not easily learned elsewhere.

On the other hand, relatively few students actually participate in school sponsored competition athletic programs. It seems unfair that so many of our precious education resources are concentrated on so few students, many of whom are envied for their popularity. It seems more appropriate that we should focus more resources on students with special needs.

There has been a trend in recent years for school districts to drop sports programs so that they can use the money elsewhere. Many schools have increased fees for participants, causing some to complain that only kids from well-to-do families can participate. Some lawmakers in Minnesota have proposed separating all extracurricular programs from public education, transferring them to community recreation departments (see Star Tribune article).

The article quotes two school district administrators that claim that only 1% of their budget goes for sports and that the associated educational benefit is well worth it. I think they’re underestimating. We wouldn’t build the kinds of football and basketball venues we do in schools merely for P.E. classes. One of the administrators quoted feels that moving programs to community organizations would strip out the underlying educational premise with the result that parents and communities would control who can participate without concern for the growth of the youth. I’m not sure I buy that argument.

Another article in the liberal Seattle Post-Intelligencer discusses money in sports at length. It decries the extents to which some parents go to promote their child’s athletic prowess, looking down the road to a college scholarship and/or big bucks from the pros. The author suggests that too many youth are lured into the idea that they are good enough to play collegiate and/or professional sports. He quotes long odds for anyone actually doing this. 1% of high school athletes get a Division 1 sports scholarship. Fewer than 1/100% of high school football players go pro. Fewer than 3/1000% of high school basketball players go pro. The author claims that the real driver of these problems is the money in professional sports.

We Americans have shown by the way we vote with our dollars and time that we highly value sports. Some people (including me) feel that the amount we spend on professional sports is obscene. I have difficulty understanding our national hedonistic worshipping of sports on the Sabbath, even among many self-professed religious folks. Still, as a nation we regard pro sports quite highly. Is it any surprise that our youth strive for excellence in something so important to us? Is it any surprise that we parallel related professional fields in our schools? Of course, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the same related problems pop up in our schools – corruption, drug abuse, etc.

In its July 1996 edition, National Geographic Magazine featured an article about the Olympics and why humans play sports. The article cited volumes of research that show that humans and animals require play to develop normally and to maintain normalcy. I suppose, however, that anything taken to an extreme is not normal. Pro athletes spend their time continually playing and preparing to play. I’m not sure I would want my child to become a pro athlete.

When all is said and done, I’m not sure how I feel about extracurricular sports in our public schools. I can see both sides of the issue. I understand the value of the programs on the one hand, but I also wonder if the money might not be better spent on different programs. I would appreciate exposure to more debate on this issue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One might postulate that there was little intelligent value in the Greek triad, "Mind, spirit and body;" however that "one" would constitute a proverbial "moron."