As the school year winds to a close, and with it varsity sports, I find myself asking the same question I did earlier in the year, and—now that I think about it—last year, too: “Why exactly are varsity sports a good thing?”
Our family lives in the South, where our three children, ages 11 to 16, attend a school that competes with other small independent sports teams. While our kids enjoy competing, my husband and I are under no illusions that they have any professional future in sports. Instead, activities such as basketball and soccer have simply been a way of having fun, staying active, and instilling a lifelong love of competition and teamwork.
Recently though, we have found out that varsity sports are in a class all their own. While weekday practices are a great way for students to shake off the fatigue and stress of a day spent indoors, this can backfire if teams must share court or field space. In that case, practices often start late and run long past dinner time. Still, we dealt with this, even though it meant losing our oldest son to family dinners for three months straight during basketball season.
No, the real challenge for us has been the games themselves. During the halcyon days of rec league sports, games were played on weekends, when parents could attend and cheer on their kids without missing work, and kids didn’t have the specter of homework waiting for them the minute they got home.
Now, once your high schooler throws his or her hat into the ring, they must commit to athletic schedules that cram two and sometimes three games in during the week and, if they happen to attend smaller schools or ones in more rural areas, away games are often at least an hour long bus ride away. This means arriving home late and starting homework long after their minds are able to focus on the subjects at hand.
This article is not intended to be a rant. Okay, well, maybe a little. However, as a parent—as a Jewish parent, with all the inherent guilt that implies—I’m concerned. And, from my conversations with others, I’m not the only one. Sports have always been a national obsession, from the baseball days of the Greatest Generation to today’s Super Bowl and March Madness devotees.
However, something has shifted. We are seeing fewer and fewer pick-up games between kids on the playgrounds and more organized school and travel sports teams. And while our kids spend their nights traveling to and from games, they are NOT spending that time on the subjects they are presumably in school to learn in the first place and which will prepare them for the rest of their lives.
While sports may strengthen bodies and instill confidence, they don’t prepare kids for the educational rigor of college and life beyond. Put plainly, it feels like sports have somehow edged out school in importance. For a nation that is battling mediocre test scores, alarming college drop-out rates, and diminishing employability in the world market, this is a big deal.
In “The Smartest Kids in the World” (2014), author Amanda Ripley compares the educational systems of the United States with those of Finland, Poland, and Korea—countries that scored high marks on an international assessment measuring critical and creative thinking. Since these skills show a strong correlation with long term national economic growth, the mediocre performance of U.S. students on this test says a lot.
Her results: success on this test had little to do with socioeconomic status or student diversity, which critics have long countered. Scores were also not affected by public spending, class size, or technology in the classrooms.
Instead, Ripley found that scores were highest in those countries that—from policy makers to parents to the students themselves—made education their top priority. Simple, right? Individuals going into the teaching professions had to pass rigorous admittance tests and received their training in top level universities. In return, teachers were paid competitively, given greater autonomy, and taught more complex material to their students because they themselves were more highly educated.
However, in the U.S., school administrators must contend with a myriad of competing expectations, of which academic performance is only one. The rise of competing priorities for schools, such as finding teachers who can also coach sports or organize other extracurriculars, or channeling funds that could be used for education into sports programs, hurts us.
I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t play sports. Truly, I’m not. My kids love sports and the feeling of camaraderie in playing for their school. But, I feel like the emphasis has shifted too far to the sports end of the spectrum. As parents who will one day watch our kids graduate, apply for jobs and support families of their own, we should give them every chance to succeed academically and learn studying skills that will help them in the workplace .
In the above-mentioned countries, kids also played sports, but not within the domain of school and not with the same taxing schedules that characterizes most high school sports in the U.S. There, school is for learning, period. Students also tended to spend less time on sports as they neared the final years before graduation, recognizing the importance of preparing for college entrance exams and beyond.
So, what to do? Perhaps working with local and state school boards to limit the number of weekday games, or the distances athletes must travel to compete with other schools would be a start. Perhaps changes must be deeper and more far-reaching. Clearly, I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s time to start the conversation.