We need to de-emphasize high school sports

America is a sports-mad nation.  Our love for professional and college athletics often begins right on the tee-ball field and races up through high school.  Anyone who has ever taught or worked in an American high school is familiar with the immutable rhythm of the fall semester—first football game, big game against rival school, Homecoming game, and fingernail-biting last game of the season—that renews itself in the spring with basketball, baseball, and soccer while providing social glue and (we hope) some school spirit to help carry us through to the end of yet another school year.

All of this is as American as apple pie—and is peculiar to America.  Most other nations, as much as they might enjoy their own sports, put nowhere near the emphasis on school athletics as we do.  Therefore, it is worth asking two questions:

One: Do school athletics promote the educational mission of our public schools and would it be easier to make much needed—and long delayed—academic improvements to our schools if athletics took more of a back seat to the classroom?  

And two: Should we, as was recently the case in Texas, spend tens of millions of dollars on new high school football stadiums or other facilities for the greater glory of our adolescent sports heroes—or is this a red flag that our misplaced priorities have finally reached a new and dangerous level of absurdity?

It is self-evident to many that school sports are the greatest thing since sliced white bread; they build strong bodies, strong character, self-reliance, and teamwork skills while providing a steroidal dose of self-confidence that provides the foundation for happy and successful lives.  

There is, of course, a tremendous difference between the learning to play the clarinet and learning how to run a post route against a Cover 2 defense, so it might be just a bit much to presume that all of the above benefits apply equally to both school athletics and school-based performing arts.  In addition, there are two basic questions about the role of school athletics in relation to the educational mission of our schools that seem reasonable to raise:

Do we have evidence on the relationship between participation in school sports and academic achievement?  

Many of the studies that point to a positive correlation between being a player and being a student suffer from one obvious deficit: They were conducted by high school athletic associations or those associated with them, who are hardly the type of disinterested scientists whom we would like to have conduct this research.

In addition, the metrics of success are typically grades or graduation rates; these are problematic measures to use because grades can often be inflated because of pressures on teachers to pass athletes to keep them eligible to play—and completion rates can in turn be positively impacted by those same inflated grades.  

We already know that high school diplomas are often loosely correlated with actual academic achievement. Perhaps we should look at the 15 percent of high school athletes (40 percent of basketball players and 35 percent of football players) who would not meet the higher minimum academic requirements required for incoming freshmen to play NCAA Division I sports starting in 2016. This is  a hint at just how many high school athletes were pencil-whipped on to graduation to keep them eligible to play.

It would likely be much better to base conclusions about the effects of participation in school sports on metrics such as college preparedness based upon scores on standardized tests, but it is only recently that state standardized tests, due to the pressures of Common Core, began to make halting and uneven progress toward measures of actual college preparedness—and many states are now in full retreat regarding these higher test standards.  Obtaining the data we need may be impossible—and until we can, we are captive to policy by anecdote.

Given the very high rates of college students requiring remedial coursework, we are pushed to one of two conclusions: (a) Either our nation’s non-athletes are piling into remedial courses when they enroll in college or (b) both athletes and non-athletes are suffering from low academic achievement, which calls into question the educational benefits of the time and money spent on school athletics in our nation’s public schools.

Interscholastic athletics programs in American public schools are very expensive

We now live an era when, for the foreseeable future, school funding will be tight. Anyone who is expecting a sudden windfall of cash to descend on their community’s public schools will likely have quite a long wait.  With the coffers empty in many states, cities, and towns, basic government services are being routinely curtailed, and public schools are not immune from this problem.

Many do not want to hear this, but the cost of athletics per student far exceeds the per-student cost of academics.  This makes sense.  Coaches need salaries or stipends, equipment and facilities cost money, transportation to games or matches must be provided, and insurance payments must be made.

The costs associated with athletics could be justified if our nation’s unique commitment to school athletics led to demonstrably better academic outcomes for our students, but this does not seem to be the case.  

My foreign students have always been both befuddled and confused by the extraordinary role that athletics play in American schools—and their own academic achievements seem not to have suffered for lack of a ball to kick, hit, or throw.  Despite the truism that athletic participation is inextricably linked to academic improvement, the United States lags far behind its international peers who insist their students spend more time in the classroom and less playing games.  

Perhaps the “truism” is not as true as many promoters of school athletics would like to believe.

There are, of course, other variables and intangibles that might be considered, but from a hard-headed dollars-and-cents educational perspective, questions about the outsized role athletics play in our schools are worth asking.  I welcome any comments or suggestions readers might have on this topic, and perhaps I can address some of your thoughts in future posts.

What do you think?
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Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk

Andrew teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Andrew has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He is the dad of two grown children, who attended public schools in Urbana.

  7 comments for “We need to de-emphasize high school sports

  1. Avatar
    July 21, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Thanks for addressing this issue. Far more needs to be discussed about it.

    • Avatar
      July 25, 2016 at 1:14 pm


      I am, as I indicated, very interested in any ideas readers might have for future posts on this topic. What else do believe needs to be discussed?


      • Avatar
        July 25, 2016 at 3:18 pm

        A serious consideration needs to be given to teaching dance in phys ed. I discovered that I am a lot more limber and in better shape than most of my contemporaries and in isolating the variables, I’m convinced it is because of my many years of dancing lessons. Dancing would not result in concussions and no doubt, would be cheaper as it could be taught to entire classes. It would also help with childhood obesity. I’ve know several adult males who suffered a lot from old football injuries, two of whom died of cancer and the consensus was that the blows to the bodies were part of the reason. At least there should be an analysis of what teaching dance in pre-K – 12 could contribute.

        • Avatar
          July 28, 2016 at 1:17 pm


          Non-contact sports that tone without the damage other sports inflict is certainly worth considering. This would also be possible with minimum additional cost and take away far less instructional time from the school day. This is a very interesting idea to explore!


  2. Avatar
    July 21, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    Andrew, school sports is a cultural issue — school sports are so extremely popular in America, we spend a great deal of money on them, as you point out. In many school districts, Boards of Education require a minimum GPA and behavior expectations for young people to qualify to play, so sports can be motivation for academic focus for students who want to play.

    Sports are extra curricular, occupying time after school which might be used for homework, but the reality is that many students don’t spend all their time studying and doing homework after school. Sports are generally supervised, organized, and if the student doesn’t get hurt, good exercise. Sports teach teamwork. There’s lots of good in sports, and the money spent on sports wouldn’t necessarily be spent on academics even if sports were eliminated from school programs.

    The solution to problems with student achievement won’t come from eliminating school sports. Do you have data on comparable schools that offer and don’t offer sports to prove that schools without sports programs have generally much higher levels of student achievement? I’ve not seen any such data.

    Student achievement among athletes is mixed. Some student athletes are excellent students in academics, go to college, and get athletic scholarships. Some students get their only joy from sports. Others who don’t play sports in school get a lot of pleasure attending games and cheering their peers on. We ought not set out to kill these joys.

    Solutions to student achievement issues aren’t to be found in trying to change things that can’t be changed like the nation’s fascination and enjoyment of sports. Solutions are to be found in meeting our students “where they are,” establishing positive working relationships with them, and enabling them to build upon the strengths and skills they bring.

    When we find ourselves in conflict with students, when we find students giving up and dropping out mentally, we need to find a way to change our approach with them or we condemn them and ourselves to failure. This is why teaching requires highly skilled and experienced individuals who have the freedom to find ways that work with the diverse issues and attitudes that our students bring.

    If our students are failing to achieve, that isn’t just their failure, it’s ours. We can’t solve this problem by shutting down school sports programs.

    • Avatar
      July 25, 2016 at 1:10 pm


      You obviously feel that participation in school sports is a win-win. However, I believe there are two issues we need to focus upon: time and money.

      School sports take up a great deal of time and energy–when I taught high school, many of my students were spending 15-20 hours per week on practices and games during the season–and it is worth asking whether that time would be better invested in academic endeavors. What would happen, for example, if a student spent those 15-20 per week reading or studying? Would they be better prepared for college and career? Sports are lots of fun, but having a blast might not be the best use of the precious and irreplaceable educational opportunities that the four years of high school are supposed to provide.

      In addition, school sports float on a pad of taxpayer money that could go toward the educational mission of the high school. I well remember scotch taping worn books together to goose them along for another year while the football and basketball teams were celebrating over their new equipment and facilities. Is this a problem? Should we take a look at our priorities and ask if they serve the interests of all our children?

      This is a complex issue, and people have a number of strong emotions about it. However, it is worth remembering that this intense focus on school sports is unique to America, and it is certainly a topic worthy of examination as we strive to prepare our students for successful and fulfilling lives beyond high school.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


      • Avatar
        August 2, 2016 at 2:17 pm

        “This is a complex issue and people have a number of strong emotions about it.” ???

        Andrew, let’s stipulate that people like me who disagree with you, or agree with you on the value of school sports aren’t expressing emotions but well considered thoughts, some of which are based on evidence.

        I ask again if you have any evidence that school sports harm student academic achievement? I ask why you believe that the judgement of tens of thousands of parents who approve their children’s participation in school sports annually is wrong and ought to be denied and prohibited by school policy?

        What makes you believe, what evidence do you have that denying high school students after school sports programs that consume “15-20 hours per week” would result in those same students devoting that time to studying?

        Have you talked to young people who say that sports kept them off the streets and positively occupied? Have you heard them say that they could not have gone to college without that scholarship? Have you surveyed the business leaders who would tell you that they learned teamwork, perseverance, and leadership through sports? What, in your judgement, is the value and meaning of well rounded?

        I was not a school athlete. I play no sports. I’m not an avid sports fan, but I would never presume to deny the value of sports to people who love them. Nor would I deny young people the opportunity to practice in a secure and guided way, in school where the spirit and camaraderie of sports programs build character and community.

        Finally, there are other time sops that take young people away from reading and academic study without any harm at all. Consider music. Consider art. Consider acting. Consider school clubs. Where would our musicians, artists, actors, politicians, and public service volunteers come from if young people were denied the opportunities to learn these skills in safe and guided after school activities.

        More hours for study, provided by eliminating after school programs to enrich the body, mind and spirit would produce no commensurate benefit. This would simply make life dull for young people, would stifle athleticism and creativity — nipping it in the bud, and would wipe away much of what makes this country great, the freedom to choose who we want to be.

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