October 17, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher: Wherefore School Sports?

NOTE: This will be my final Letter From The Teacher education post on Confederate Yankee. I'll be cross posting this article to my new blog, and will continue my education writing there in a slightly different format, beginning Tuesday, October 25, 2011. Thanks for reading our work, and I look forward to seeing you at Stately McDaniel Manor where I am already posting.

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Steamed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: Wherefore School Sports?

Dear Bob:

I hope you don't mind if I vent a bit. And you might not share this one too widely; it will, no doubt, tick people off. On second thought, when have we ever been worried about that? Anyway, here's a necessary disclaimer that may ward off at least a few of the death threats: I support athletic endeavors. Many of the apologies and arguments in their favor are, in lesser and greater degrees, true. I have been an athlete all of my life as a runner, martial artist, European fencer, Japanese fencer, soccer player, and now, with age and the ravages of many knee injuries, an avid bicyclist. I have, of course, played most other sports including football, baseball, tennis--you name it--from time to time.

I don't reflexively oppose sports in the schools for I believe they do provide valuable benefits. Rather, I oppose waste, fraud, inefficiency, and anything that steals even a minute of the precious class time of my students.

It has been said that high school sports aren't our focus; they're our religion. Indeed, some pursue them with that kind of fervor, even if only as fans. Is "fantasy football" a sort of devotion or merely escapism?

As it's the season, let's discuss football. It was only recently that I realized our football team of a bit more than 30 kids has a coaching staff of at least 23. I can't get anyone to confirm more, though I suspect they exist. This, as I understand it, is not uncommon in many parts of the country. Amazed, I dug out my own high school yearbook from the year of my graduation, back in the 1400s. Lo and behold, there were, in the team photo, about 30 players and two (two!) coaches. My memory was correct. As I recall, our teams won some games, lost others, but always managed to play football, presumably enjoying the experience.

I did a bit of digging and discovered that we pay a stipend of around $6000 each for those assistant coaches. That's $132,000 dollars for football alone! The budget for our entire academic department doesn't amount to a fraction of that. In fact, I'm pretty sure the combined budgets of all of our academic departments don't come remotely close to that figure, which again, represents only the salaries of assistant coaches.

Another interesting fact: All of those coaches produce no better results than the two coaches of my youth. Yet in the last decade, we've built, with enormous cost overruns, a multi-million dollar stadium many colleges would be glad to have, and a variety of other expensive athletic facilities as well as all the goodies that go along with all of those major expenditures. Members of our school board and community went full Costner, actually believing "if we build it, they will win." Sadly, with few exceptions, that mystical, Field of Dreams miracle has not come to pass.

It's not just a football facility; it's for everyone," our school officials intoned.

Right. I'll reserve it for my English classes right after the social studies department is done reenacting the Battle of the Bulge in the bleachers.

"But football teaches important life lessons about sacrifice, dedication, perseverance, duty and team work!"

Perhaps, but only to the benefit of a group of some 30 boys comprising a fraction of the student body.

"But every student is a member of the team. That's why we have pep rallies, so they can participate and feel school spirit."

That I'm not so sure of, though I am sure that most kids love getting out of their regular classes for any reason. I suspect few of the kids consider themselves to have any real involvement with the football team.

Don’t get me wrong: we're not nearly as sports-berserk as many other schools, but I've often wished we put the same amount of money, energy and promotion we expend for the benefit of a handful of boys into academics which benefit every student. The books I could buy! The insights I could share! Instead, those kids are often gone, as are their 20+ coaches, leaving subs in their place—when any can be found for the paltry wages we pay. That's not unusual either.

"But sports keep many kids in school. If it wasn't for football, they'd drop out!"

Really? And their parents allow this kind of behavior? We encourage it? Who are the adults here and who are the children? Who is actually in charge? What are the life lessons we're really teaching with this kind of thinking? If we don't give kids the diversions they demand, they'll be allowed to take their toys and quit? This is responsibility? This teaches sacrifice, dedication, perseverance, duty and team work?

"But sports build sound bodies and minds!"

Indeed they do, but at what point do we bother to evaluate whether they do so at the expense of academic preparation and accomplishment, which is, as far as I'm aware, still the primary reason for the existence of schools.

A few years back, one of my students—let's call him Marvin—was extolling his enthusiasm for football in near-religious terms. Football was his life, and would be his life in the future. He would be a professional football player. I told Marvin to enjoy himself, to have fun playing his chosen sport, but to develop his mind above all, gently pointing out that he was only 5'6" tall and weighed only 150 pounds. The cruelty of genetics would deny him a future in the NFL, as they do countless kids much larger, stronger and better at the game, perhaps only because they are a tenth of a second slower in the 40 than someone else.

I'd like to say the scales fell from his eyes at that moment, that he took my advice and had fun playing a game, but redoubled his efforts to improve himself academically in order to have a better, attainable future, but he didn't. Instead, he struggled through the year, keeping his average just high enough to maintain his eligibility for sports, often coming to class late because various coaches kept him too long, which certainly contributed to his low grades.

Didn't we spark and encourage his entirely unrealistic beliefs? Didn't we play some role in delaying his intellectual development?

I don't have all the answers, but I suspect all of our students might be better off if, instead of promoting just a few costly sports that directly benefit only a few kids, we focused on lifetime sports in a greater variety and sponsored primarily intramural competitions. We could easily afford the best equipment—and plenty of it--for far more sports and involve far more of the student body. And without the need to travel, missing entire days of school, the kids would have a much greater opportunity to learn while more of them would reap the unquestionable benefits of sports. After all, isn't that really what we're supposed to be doing?

What do you think?


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at October 17, 2011 10:35 PM

What? Intramural sports, where a school community plays flag football, badmitton, softball, pingpong, fenced, jugled, pick-up basketball, frizby golf, marbles, foosball--? Nah, not enough interest--too restricting--not enough diversity--too much general health--too economical--too much sense.

Posted by: Bronco at October 18, 2011 09:20 PM