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Ericson: The case for high school sports

Last month in The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley laid out her argument in “The Case Against High-School Sports.”

Her piece was well researched and thought provoking, but almost entirely off base.

Ripley argued that too much of a focus on athletics detracts from academics and is the main reason why the United States lags behind other countries in academic performance.

Forget budget cuts, under-paid teachers and a focus on testing that eliminates critical thinking. Instead blame sports for the downfall of American education.

It doesn’t make sense.

Ripley does state some benefits she found from playing soccer as a girl, including “exercise, lessons in sportsmanship and perseverance, school spirit, and just plain fun.”

She goes on to argue that if the focus of schools were on academics and athletics were not a part of school but rather something done outside of school that test scores would magically improve.

Let’s just set aside that standardized test scores in my opinion are a terrible way to measure academic success and keep the focus on the topic at hand.

Sure, for suburban students, doing well in high school so you can move on to college is expected and ingrained and athletics are simply a way for a student to do something they enjoy. However, for some students in urban schools, sports mean so much more and are sometimes the sole reason kids stay in school at all.

If high school sports were eliminated, many suburban students would have opportunities join club teams or travel teams that cost money to play on.

But what happens to the athletes from urban schools who can’t afford pay-to-play sports outside school?

How would a student from, say, Bassick, participate on one of these non-school affiliated teams?

It would most likely be hard for the student to pay any fees, find transportation to practices and games and their safety would not be ensured the way it is at school sponsored events where police and school security are present.

Playing sports is sometimes all kids have, and taking that away from them and asking them to replace it with math is not practical.

Those kids would more likely end up on the street rather than joining the after-school physics club.

Ripley states countries like Finland and Germany offer club sports, but nothing directly affiliated with the school. In countries like Korea, students simply play sports on dirt fields with little or no organization and this is why they have higher test scores.

It is true that sports are more a part of life in American schools than they are worldwide but saying a focus on sports is the reason for low test scores seems misleading.

In fact, participation in school-run athletics seems to improve the academic success of most students, not detract from it.

Student athletes are required to not just attend class but maintain a certain GPA in order to keep playing.

This has a twofold benefit to student athletes.

First, the student’s main motivation for attending class and studying in some case may simply be to remain with the team, meaning that if the team did not exist, the student may not have any interest in schooling.

Second, having a responsibility to teammates is something preached by many coaches, and letting them down by becoming academically ineligible is unacceptable and embarrassing.

Being successful in sports and academics are not mutually exclusive and it is not just coincidence that the local schools with the most success on the playing fields are also the schools with the best academic records.

Having winning sports programs boosts the moral of a school and community and when a student learns to function within a team those traits are easily transferred over to academics.

Sports teaches time management more than any other after-school activity as students have less free time and are more likely to set aside time for homework before or after practice.

A student with no responsibilities after school may not budget time as well, leaving homework undone or hurriedly finished late at night or early in the morning.

You want to improve American academic success? Make school more fun and engaging for kids, move away from so much testing and pay quality teachers more money but please do not eliminate high school sports.

scott.ericson@scni.com; @EricsonSports

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