A League of Our Own

Why American high schools should right-size sports in line with education systems globally

By Amanda Ripley/School Administrator, August 2015

When I visited South Korea to try to understand how this once-impoverished country had become one of the world’s smartest nations, I was puzzled by the athletic fields. South Korea is now a wired, booming country with every conceivable amenity, but the school athletic fields tend to be, well, dirt.

Author Amanda Ripley questions why school communities give higher priority to athletic competition than higher-order thinking skills.

Korean kids happily played on these dirt fields every chance they got. Boys played pick-up soccer and girls played badminton. But I came to realize the dirt was important. The dirt sent a signal to kids that was more valuable than turf.

Over in Finland, I walked into one high school and noticed a trophy case, just like back home in Washington, D.C. But the trophies were more than a decade old, and many were won by staff members, not students. By the time Finnish teenagers get to high school, a teacher explained to me, they usually dial back on sports in order to focus on their studies.


A Higher Priority

Of all the differences between schools in the United States and other countries, the biggest one may be hiding in plain sight. Sports are so embedded in American high schools that we rarely debate the comingling of academics and athletics. But foreign exchange students notice it immediately when they arrive at their U.S. high schools, often with delight.

“The high school sport scene here is amazing,” a Danish exchange student living near St. Louis, Mo., told West Newsmagazine. “The clothes, rooms, gyms, fields, the coaches. It is so overwhelming.”Smartest Kids

When I surveyed hundreds of exchange students for a book I was writing about education around the world, nine out of 10 international students said their U.S. peers placed more importance on doing well in sports than students back home. Six out of 10 American students who had lived abroad agreed.

The problem isn’t that our kids care about sports; it’s how much they care. Our kids will enter the same globalized economy as the kids in Korea and Finland, an economy that demands higher-order skills. Only about 2 percent of our college students will receive athletic scholarships, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. We don’t have a special, alternative workforce where kids can get by with mediocre math skills and thrive on the lacrosse circuit. But every signal many American kids get suggests that, in fact, we do — that life’s greatest thrills and challenges are found not in the classroom but on the field of play.

The American tradition of mixing sports with school drains energy, focus, time and money from the core academic mission of school. In Finland, teachers rarely coach. Principals do not worry about finding substitutes during away games or lining the fields for football games. That means they can focus on the very hard job of educating students — and it means those students get more accurate messages about which activities will matter most over the arc of their lives.

De-emphasizing Sports

So what can we do to help close the sports gap between the United States and other countries? It’s unlikely that Americans will ever banish all competitive sports from school — or intentionally convert fields to dirt. But a small number of American school leaders, teachers and coaches are finding ways to put rational limits on scholastic sports despite all the obstacles.

Cut tackle football.

Of the top 100 “most challenging” high schools in America, as ranked by education columnist Jay Mathews at The Washington Post, a whopping 67 do not field a football team. “Apparently, a growing number of parents are willing to forego Friday night gridiron clashes if they can count on more rigorous learning,” Mathews wrote upon the release of his 2014 list. (To compile the list, Mathews considers the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated that year.)

According to school leaders I have interviewed, football is the most expensive sport per student-athlete, costing two or three times the cost of math per student. It is also the most likely to distract the entire school for much of the autumn, win or lose. As more schools find it difficult to field a full team due to injuries and a heightened fear of concussions, abandoning tackle football may start to sound less unthinkable in some towns.

Limit travel and practice time.

In 2014, California schools began limiting students to 18 hours per week of practice time under a new California Interscholastic Federation rule. That same year, state legislators passed a law that prohibits football teams from holding full-contact practices for more than 90 minutes per day. (The change was triggered by concerns about head injuries, not academic failings, but it still may prevent schools from the madness of holding morning, afternoon and Saturday practices during the football season.)

The leaders of BASIS Tucson North, a high-performing public charter school in Arizona, deliberately chose to participate in a league that costs less and requires no long-distance travel for games. That means that students — and teachers — rarely miss class because of sports. Students who want to compete at an elite level do so outside of school through club teams.

Meanwhile, on academic measures, BASIS Tucson North students outperform teenagers in Korea, Finland and Singapore in math, reading and science — a remarkable accomplishment that reflects the school’s priorities.

Make school more like sports.

When Jim Rodgers became a teacher in Illinois, he did it partly to become a coach. He was an All-State football player in high school and an All-American in college. “There’s nobody who loves football more than I do,” he says.

But after he became an English teacher, he realized two surprising things. First, he loved teaching even more than coaching. Second, to do it right, he had to dedicate all his time to it. He read four books at a time to keep up with his classes. He brought stacks of papers home at night for grading. Meanwhile, during football season, he spent 35 to 40 hours per week coaching. “There were days when I’d give the kids a little time to read in class and I’d be nodding off at my desk,” he says. “I’d feel terrible about it.”

After eight years of trying to do both, Rodgers decided to give up football for English. “As much as I enjoyed football, I got a much bigger thrill out of teaching. I really felt like I was doing more good in the world and that it was more valuable than what I was doing on the field.” But he had a hard time explaining that to the kids and his fellow coaches. “I am asked every year why I no longer coach football, and people are appalled to hear me say that it took away from my effectiveness as a teacher.”

But Rodgers did not turn his back on coaching. He just moved his tactics to the classroom. He’s obsessed with motivating students, just like a great coach, and he doesn’t put up with excuses. One year, his freshman boys complained there weren’t any good books for guys to read in the library. So Rodgers wrote a book called Where Strides the Behemoth and self-published it on Amazon. “It’s about a football player who gets a hold of some tainted blood, and it really messes with him,” he explains.

Rather than saying kids should value English more than sports, Rodgers actually demonstrated that choice himself, for everyone to see. And for him, it’s worth noting, the solution was not to become like Finland or Korea. Instead, he transferred the intensity, passion and play he learned on the football field directly into his classroom — and created an authentically American intellectual culture.

Reimagining Health

At Spelman College, a historically black, women’s college in Atlanta, the president made a bold decision to cancel intercollegiate sports after the spring of 2013. She’d realized the college was spending a lot of money on a small number of competitive athletes, while half of the remaining students struggled with obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes or some other health problem that could be ameliorated with exercise.

But instead of just canceling sports, Spelman’s president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, promised to fill the void. She announced the college would spend its $1 million athletic budget on a campuswide health and fitness program instead of elite sports. Then she and her colleagues worked hard to offer new activities that would interest students who weren’t already athletes. As of 2014, the percentage of students participating in fitness classes at the college’s wellness center had increased more than 400 percent, encompassing more than half of the undergraduate population, according to Inside Higher Ed.

As Americans become more concerned about concussions, obesity and other contemporary worries, school leaders have an opportunity to right-size sports for the modern age.

In an economy that demands higher-order skills, it no longer makes sense for students to miss class to play games. Instead, educators and parents should offer something better. That means asking students themselves for ideas about how to make learning more compelling, joyful and relevant. And it means finding ways to introduce the benefits of sports — the exercise, the discipline and the camaraderie — to more students, instead of fewer.

Amanda Ripley
, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way (Simon & Schuster) is a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective in Washington, D.C. E-mail: Amanda@amandaripley.com. Twitter: @amandaripley  


Additional Reading

School Administrator magazine previously addressed interscholastic athletics in a pair of comprehensive theme issues.
Full-length articles in the June 2006 issue (www.aasa.org/SAJune2006.aspx) include “Athletic Eligibility: Struggling To Raise the Bar,” “The Conundrum of Home-Schoolers in Sports,” “Sports at Any Cost?” and “Targeting Sportsmanship.”
Articles in the November 1998 issue (www.aasa.org/SANov1998.aspx) include “Athletic Eligibility: Right or Privilege?” “Marketing Scholastic Sports,” “Parity on the Playing Field,” “Managing the Risks of School Sports” and “What Role for Middle School Sports?”