Saturday, April 5, 2014

Is Eliminating Sports in Schools the Answer?

     A few years ago, a new principle of Premont High School in Texas was faced with a school failing so badly at its task of educating its students that it was in threat of being closed down for good. The actions he took to try to save his school were extraordinary.

     Among several actions he undertook to save a school over $400,000 in debt, while still educating it's students and adding two science labs, the most dramatic of all was the elimination of all sports for the following year. It was estimated doing so would save the school about $150,000 that year and allow them to focus on the task of educating their students. 

A good week in Premont
     As you would expect, there were many who disagreed with this extreme approach. At a school where the daily average percentage of absent students was around 20%, many parents and students alike claimed the only reason the attendance was even that high was due to sports. Without sports, no one would come to school, they said. 

     North America is unique in the world in regards to how sports are integrated as a part of our school system. With the dismal ranking our students achieve when compared to other countries, many who spend much less dollars per student than we do, the question must be asked, is school the proper place for youth sports?

     I grew up playing sports in school. During my grade schools years, mainly hockey and baseball were the sports offered. These were club sports at that age. Both cost money. Once I moved into middle school, sports were offered by the schools. I was involved in american football, then soccer and eventually, basketball. Sports were a significant part of my school life, even into college.

     Yet, with failing schools in America and growing expense of playing sports and the facilities required, it may be time for a serious discussion about whether or not sports have a proper place within the school system.

Premont football
     There are pros and cons to playing sports and likewise, for the main engagement of sports to be run by the public school system. There can be no denying the benefits of playing sports for the youth who play it. Learning hard work, teamwork and dealing with disappointment are all important aspects to becoming a mature adult. No activity teaches a child these things with more intensity than sport. The health benefits are obvious as well.

     There are of course negatives. The damage that can be done to a child by a poorly motivated coach are much more devastating than many would let on. Coaches are allowed to treat students in ways that would cause other school staff to be dismissed. Being bullied by the resident jerk in your class is wholly different than being bullied by your coach. Sadly, it happens every single day. And the physical damage that can be caused to growing bodies through repetitive and overly competitive training and playing can have lasting and negative effects on the student athletes.

     However, are the benefits of youth sport worth the cost in time, money, risk and health? I think they are. Nothing is without risk. We must always weight the cost.

     So the question isn't to play sport or not but rather, where is the proper place for sports in our society?

     There are two main benefits to having sports controlled by the public school system. This system allows almost anyone who wants to participate in the sport to play at some level. Of course this sin't the case throughout the entire United States or every sport offered. There are some schools that have tryouts because their systems can only handle a certain number of athletes. But it stands that many students who want to play are given the opportunity in school who would not have the same opportunity if sport were left solely to clubs. In many schools, ability isn't the deciding factor and cost is kept to a minimum because of the offsetting of the cost by the school's budget.

     The other claimed benefit is that having sport in school generates interest in attending school that may not be there for many students. This was one of the main arguments that pressed against the principle of the school in Texas. They argued that having the football program was, for many student athletes, the only reason they came to school at all. This, from a school that ran a daily average of 20% absenteeism.

     Yet, there are negatives to having sport in schools. The amount of time taken away from class by sport activities is substantial. From pep rallies, to team travel time and early dismissals due to tournaments, there is a definite impact on education time, not just for the athletes themselves, but for every student. For the athlete, it becomes even more of a burden. There is very little time to do homework or study for tests during the season. Especially for basketball and football players.

     Cost is another issue. Just because having sports in schools makes it affordable for students who might otherwise not be able to play a particular sport, it doesn't mean the sport is affordable. The costs do not change. What changes is who is paying for it. We often hear complaints about how much we spend per student in our public schools and yet fail to produce good students. What portion of that expenditure is going towards sports rather than education?  In the Premont school in Texas, the estimation was about $150,000 per year. This was for a small school district. The amounts for a large school district in a metropolitan area would be considerably higher. And this amount didn't include the upkeep that continued to be needed for the facilities. Nor would it have considered how much the School District could have recouped through the sale of facilities it would no longer need if sports were removed permanently.

     I tried to determine how much my local school district spent on sports overall but looking through the budget, it was impossible to tell. The budget is not itemized in that way. If I had to guess, I would say it was in the millions. This is still a small percentage of the overall budget. But it is a significant amount of money nonetheless.

     This is money that is collected from taxes and other sources for the education of the students yet is not used for education in any way. In fact, it could be argued, it is being used for activities that actually work to hinder the very education it was collected to provide.

Club sports start at a young age
      What would the alternative be? Creating privately funded sports clubs in each city would provide the opportunity to play sports while not interfering in schools. As one can imagine, there are positives and negatives to this situation as well. There may not be as much opportunity for less athletic students in clubs as there is in some school districts. The costs involved for the athlete would be higher than they are in the schools. This might keep some athletes from being able to participate as well. So you may have lower participation than currently is the case. But, you may not. There is always the possibility for the clubs to provide scholarships for athletes and the creation of leagues for players who are not able to play competitively with the better athletes. That would be up the people running the clubs.

     The benefits of having a club run athletics are numerous. The club can focus more on player development than simply winning championships. With athletes joining as children and remaining in the same programs through high school, the chance for proper development of the athlete is much greater than the current system. There would be greater emphasis in the clubs to provide quality training at the younger age levels because there is ownership of the program throughout that child's sports career. I firmly believe that the United States would develop even better athletes than we currently do, through a club based program rather than the current school based programs.

     But the largest effect would be how it changes the school system. Imagine a high school without sports. Imagine the change in the facilities. Imagine the changes to the the staff. Imagine the difference in the transportation systems. Imagine the difference in focus within the school day. Imagine how much time would actually be required each day to properly educate the students of the school. Imagine a school system where the students spend a third less of the day in school, with no homework.  What could be accomplished with an extra 4 to 6 hours a day?  The student would be free to join a sports club, and not be arriving at home after 6 pm to eat supper and then hit their homework. The student would be free to spend time learning an instrument or working a job, or spending time with their family or friends.

     This concept might be a huge shock to your way of thinking. But just spend a few minutes really thinking about how the typical school day would be effected if sports were removed from the responsibility of the school system.

Premont graduation
     When one weighs the negatives and positives, I cannot see a better way to help solve the issue of education in this country. With this one single change, we would be able to develop more highly educated students, students better prepared for their careers and better athletes. Accomplishing all this with potentially, a smaller burden on the tax payer.

    It at least deserves consideration. It worked in Premont. Attendance increased. Test scores increased. The budget decreased. The school was saved. Just think what it could do for your local school.


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