The cost of school sports


An article in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine is titled, “The Case Against High School Sports.”

The author notes the low rank of U.S. students when math and science skills are compared to students from other countries. She also notes the fact that U.S. public schools regularly spend far more money on an athlete than they do on a math student.

The author’s question follows: “And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?”

In her article, Amanda Ripley summarizes the general development of the high school sport phenomenon,  detailing some of the rationalizations for school-sponsored athletics, the many “positives” said to accrue as a result of funding sports programs. She also notes the substantial difference in the attitude toward school kid sports in countries that regularly rank higher in educational analyses and, at the same time, produce exceptional athletes. (Most offer youth sports through non-school club systems.) She discusses some of the problems in American public education that contribute to the poor performance in math and sciences, but centers her attention on the effect on academic standards and performance of an overemphasis on school-based athletics.

These problems affect every public school district to one degree or another, including District 50 Jt. here in Pagosa Country.

With a state school funding issue on the November general election ballot, as well as races for seats on the local school board, voters might benefit by considering the role of sport in school life, the effect of an emphasis on sport on academics, and the cost of school sports — both direct and hidden.

We believe the primary issue here is cost. And it is clear to us that one of the major problems — as long as taxpayers fund school sports — stems from what we see as an outdated scheme, based on an arbitrary and inefficient understanding of geography. District 50 Jt. provides a clear example, in particular with the high school football team placed by the Colorado High School Activities Association in a league that requires a trying, and costly, travel regimen.

In short, we now structure school athletics in terms of state boundaries and, in doing so, create a costly situation. A mistake doubled with maintenance of a statewide activities association that has outlived its usefulness.

If we are to continue with school sports (and we have doubts this is the ultimate, best course, see below) state lines should be ignored and proximity should determine participants. First, cut costs by establishing leagues and regional conferences (with championships, tournaments, etc.) that, in the case of the local district, cross the New Mexico and Utah borders and require only day trips for traveling teams. No overnight stays.

Second, determine which athletic activity requires the greatest per student cost, and cut it.

Third, work to establish consensus in communities in newly drawn regions to move progressively to out-of-school club sports. Those clubs could be supported by participant fees and donations, as non-profit organizations.

Whatever is done, and there is no doubt significant change will take a very long time, we should keep a key target in mind: save money. And put those savings into things that improve academic performance: teacher salary raises, teacher training, equipment.

We love sport, and there is no reason to expect that what one loves cannot change for the better.

Who knows, if changes can take place at this level, perhaps, some day, the U.S. will move to a more realistic attitude toward sport at other levels. Perhaps, some day, a major college football program will send a team to a money-making bowl game based on the team’s performance on the field … and the program’s graduation rate.     Karl Isberg