Are competitive sports programs a requirement for a well-rounded school? There are many aspects that should be discussed around this question, as this is not a straight-forward budgetary or even a student activity question. In the simplest terms, however, it goes to the heart of what constitutes a school, be that a high school or even a university.
What is the mission?
In its most basic terms, we must ask the purpose of a school. From Little League Baseball and other organized children’s sports to private sports academies all the way up to the minor leagues, the mission is quite clear: teach the participants how to play the sport. There are no academics involved, and no one makes a fuss about the lack of them. Well, the mission at schools is also quite clear: teach the participants all of those other things, from math and language skills to science to history to philosophy. Frankly, that’s a hell of a mission for one institution to accept, let alone live up to. In the second place, that’s how most people actually make their living; a very small percentage of the population is employed by a professional sports team, and that goes for the marketing people and administrative staff as well as the players and coaches.
So why is it, with all of the other options in every community for their children to participate in organized sports, that the public screams as soon as a school eliminates sports, whether one or all of them? In my opinion, it’s because of money. Other than occasional fund raisers for a “special” trip for a team, the school district covers most of the costs of their sports teams. If they did not, the parents would have to pay for those private options, which would eat into their discretionary spending. In other words, enrolling the kids in sports would become just as much of a personal budget item as going out to dinner or a movie … or to a professional sporting event.
What is the non-monetary value of extra-curricular activities?
It is argued that sports “build team spirit, character, and the thrill of competition.” Well, so do many other activities. Band builds a lot of team spirit, without the constant contact. Art lets a person delve deeply into their inner personality, only without the interference of vitriolic parents. Science fairs encourage intense competition, but include leaps of imagination backed up with research and experimentation. Public speaking and drama provide highly-charged emotional outlets, only they combine intellectual thrills and insights into the human character that most sports don’t even pretend to encompass. And so on.
What’s more, I believe that those other types of activities are not only much closer to the actual mission of a school, but much more valuable to the overall development of the mind and spirit of a person. Perhaps more importantly, there are a lot fewer options for those sorts of activities in the average community, at least at the moderate cost that most Little Leagues or soccer leagues charge to participate. And, finally, I can’t imagine a violinist using steroids to enhance their performance, or a debater knee-capping a rival to win a competition. Competition in other eadeavors can be cut-throat, but not literally.
Don’t public school students need exercise?
Absolutely. Studies show that obesity impacts nearly one-third of the children in the U.S., creating massive health problems that ultimately impact our healthcare system. “Mens sano in corpore sano” is a maxim I’ve always believe in. But, in my opinion, competitive sports actually lead to many high schools minimizing the effectiveness of their general physical education program. In California, the standards call for a minimum of 200 minutes each ten days (20 minutes per day) for grades 1-6, with a minimum of 400 minutes each ten days (40 minutes per day) for grades 7-12, with the equivalent of two years of physical education required for high school. There are certain exceptions and waivers, but on paper that sounds reasonable.
However, the practice is a lot worse. The primary monitoring of recess in elementary schools is to watch out for bullying or injury, not to ensure that kids are actually getting exercise. In high school, periods are 50 minutes long. After 10 minutes to get into the gym and get suited up, then change afterwards, that leaves 30 minutes for possible exercise. If the students ran around the track every day, they would get their cardiovascular requirement. However, I’ve seen many instances where a P.E. teacher cannot monitor 40-50 kids adequately, so many either move listlessly or stand around and talk.
Because certain students participate in competitive sports, they are excused from P.E. That’s totally reasonable, whether the sport is part of a school program or outside of school. But those who do not participate in verified activities – which constitute the vast majority – are given short-shrift in this aspect.
Allow the community sports programs to take care of that competitive fire. Put the resources into ensuring that the students at school get adequate exercise. That may mean increasing time for P.E. classes to an hour and twenty minutes, as well as hiring more P.E. teachers to work with smaller groups. One of the reasons schools start early and end early is to allow time for after-school sports programs to practice and play during daylight. If we allocate our resources better, we can improve the health of our children while focusing on the correct mission, which is not to train athletes.
How much does it all cost?
In the end, almost all arguments come down to the overall operating budget for the institution. A few public schools I know of have divested themselves of competitive sports. However, I’m aware of many more that have eliminated public speaking, shop programs (auto, wood, etc.), orchestra/band, creative writing or art programs, and so on, in order to keep their sports teams. While most sports are not nearly as expensive as football (nor as dangerous, for that matter), I suspect the budget would pretty well support those other, more intellectual or career-oriented activities in lieu of competing with Little League, Pop Warner, the Amateur Athletic Union, Boy’s Club/Girl’s Club, private swim and tennis clubs, etc., not to mention all the local rec programs around.
What is the solution?
In the end, it is up to us. We must first remember the mission of our public schools, and then we must demand that the people we have entrusted with running those schools deliver the highest possible quality of education with the least frivolous budget. Keep physical education; it’s relatively cheap. In fact, longer hours and more serious exercise should be incorporated. But let other community organizations handle the competition of sports. Save the budget of public schools for more academic, enlightening activities that are usually given short shrift in the local community.