“High school athletics will thrive in the United States as long as our society desires the values taught through high school athletics.”
Robert F. Kanaby, the former executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, succinctly summed up the future of high school sports a couple of years ago.
The statement can be considered as a confirmation – “as long as the sun rises in the East” or “as long as the tide washes in” – because society generally supports the values taught through interscholastic athletics.
Or Kanaby’s statement can be viewed as a prediction of the demise of high school athletics as we know them.
High school athletics are designed for children to have fun and to teach things like self-sacrifice, integrity, discipline, respect, fair play and teamwork. Players learn how to handle success and failure. Many players learn that life is not always fair.
Kanaby said using high school sports to convey values goes back to before the turn of the 20th century when education leaders saw high school athletics as a way to teach the skills needed to produce better citizens for a democracy.
Teaching values has helped give high school athletics great resiliency. Interscholastic sports have survived two world wars, The Great Depression and societal changes such as integration. The popularity of high school athletics has increased with the inclusion of women’s athletics.
There were more than 5 million high school athletes in the United States last year, the most ever.
But what happens to a program that is designed to teach values when its society no longer places a high priority on the teaching of values?
There is no organized movement against the values taught by high school athletics. Teamwork, discipline, integrity, acceptance and respect still are valued.
But there are signs that other things, sometimes very good things, are eroding the support for high school athletics.
The pursuit of an athletic scholarship has become a high priority of some families. Players specialize in one sport at an early age. Many athletes don’t play high school athletics in their pursuit of becoming the best player possible and getting an athletic scholarship and perhaps some professional dollars.
Producing the best player possible isn’t the goal of high school athletics and high school sports aren’t designed to secure college athletic scholarships. If getting a player an athletic scholarship is the objective, most high schools fail more that 95 percent of the time.
But high school athletics are not designed to produce the highest test scores either. Nationally, there are discussions of whether sports hinder education. In a world of shrinking financial resources, high school sports might have to prove their value.
The United States is the only country in the world with high school sports, and the U.S. struggles in some measures of academic success. Some people believe there is a link.
Alice Ripley recently wrote in the Atlantic Journal, “As states and districts continue to slash education budgets, as more kids play on traveling teams outside of school, and as the globalized economy demands that children learn higher-order skills so they can compete down the line, it’s worth reevaluating the American sporting tradition. If sports were not central to the mission of American high schools, then what would be?”
Traditionally, high school athletics have been considered to be a co-educational activity. Sports are part of the educational process, advocates say, and sports help to produce better people. Values sometimes aren’t taught at home, and extracurricular activities like sports, band, chorus and others can do a good job of teaching values.
Society eventually will answer
I suspect eventually society will decide high school sports have merit, and the questioning process will have been good for high school sports. I also suspect there will be challenges.