Guest Column

School Activities Lost and Found

by JOHN E. ROBERTS

The past school year may be remembered years from now as the year school sports took its largest step toward a nonschool environment.

Consider these disturbing developments:

  • The big increase in the number of school districts charging participation fees and in the amount of those fees.
  • The big increase in the number of districts forcing participants to arrange their own transportation to interscholastic events.
  • The big increase in the number of teams requiring families to purchase the basics, such as playing uniforms.
  • The big increase in the number of sports that were 100 percent financed with nonschool funds.
  • The continuing increase in nonfaculty coaches, and many more volunteer nonfaculty coaches.
  • The fewest full-time athletic administrators, at least in Michigan, than at any time since perhaps the late 1970s.

By these and other measures, school sports drifted further and faster than any previous year in my memory in the direction of nonschool sports. The 2010-11 year may well be remembered years from now as the year school athletics and activities lost their distinguishing traits. And of all the challenges that threaten public school athletics, none is greater than this one.

Recovery Effort
My wife barely listens to me when I lose something; she certainly doesn’t help me search anymore when I say that I’ve lost something. It seems as if I’m always looking for something I’ve lost, but especially eyeglasses and car keys. “You always find them,” she says. “Eventually.”]

And it’s true. I do.

And here’s what I’ve discovered: I always find what I’ve lost in the places I last left them. Pretty obvious, isn’t it? But like so much that is so obvious in life, there’s a larger point: We always find what we’ve lost in the places where we’ve last left it.

In my view, in just a few years, we’re going to bemoan that we’ve lost some things that are important to us in school district athletics programs, that we’ve lost some pure and precious things about school-based sports, those distinguishing and defining traits of educational athletics.

And I think, someday, when school leaders start looking for these lost items, they will find them right where they last left them.

  • When schools realize they’ve lost a magnet for attracting students and the involvement of parents in schools, they will start looking for that magnet.
  • When schools realize they’ve lost a tool for reaching and motivating students to stay in school and do well in school, they will start looking for that tool.
  • When schools realize they have lost a forum for giving a school identity and for igniting school spirit, they will start looking for that forum.
  • When schools realize they have lost a program that teaches teamwork and discipline, sacrifice and time management, leadership and citizenship, they will start looking for that program.
  • And when schools realize they have lost a program that improves student attendance and grade point averages and reduces student discipline problems and dropouts, they will start looking for that program.

School leaders will find these benefits where they always have — in student-centered, school-sponsored competitive athletics and activities.

The Whole Child
Community recreation programs are fine, but they are not a substitute for interscholastic athletics. They lack the elements of organization and competition that are necessary to teach and learn efficiently. Travel teams are fine, but they are not interscholastic athletics. They force an individual to focus on a single sport and on the individual more than the team. They lack the attention to the whole child, an essential aspect of school sports.

In his address to Catholic school educators in England not long before his death, Pope John Paul said this about education: “The task … is not simply to impart information or to provide training in skills intended to deliver some economic benefit to society; education is not and must never be considered as purely utilitarian. It is about forming the human person, equipping him or her to live life to the fullest.” That is what we do in school sports and activities; we help prepare the whole child.

High student test scores are terrific, but they won’t save the planet. The only hope we have for the next generation is to form the whole human person today through broad and deep curricular and extracurricular programs delivered by passionate educators.

John (Jack) Roberts is executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association in East Lansing, Mich. E-mail: jack@mhsaa.com