Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Case Against the Case Against High School Sports

[These comments are a response to Amanda Ripley's article The Case Against High School Sports, originally published in The Atlantic in 2014.]      

[Also please excuse the academic tone of this piece while I continue my journey as a "scholar athlete."]

In her 2013 article, The Case Against High School Sports, Amanda Ripley pulls from a variety of research and opinions on the subject of high school athletics to convey what at first seems to be a logical argument for the lessening of school sports.  Most notably, she highlights the gap between academic performance tests among the United States and Asian world powers such as South Korea.  She also points out the recent success of schools that have taken a different approach to athletics.  Yet, at further consideration, Ripley’s view of education is something that should not be supported.  Yes, at some point educators and school administration in this country have to check themselves and reassure that they are not putting athletics before academics.  However, it is an undeniable fact that sports are beneficial to learning and one of the most important aspects of American culture. Furthermore, sports teach us valuable lessons that cannot be taught in the classroom.  With American society at present, high school sports are something precious and beneficial to teenagers, and must be protected. 
I know from personal experience that sports have had a huge impact on my life.  Even Ridley acknowledges that from her experience playing high school sports, she remembers benefits such as, “exercise, lessons in sportsmanship and perseverance, school spirit and just plain fun.”  But just like anything else with potential benefits, one usually receives only as much as their effort warrants.  Everyone’s experience with athletics is different.  I have played football and lacrosse for all four years of my high school career, and many other sports prior.  The lessons I learned on the field and the memories I made are extremely valuable to me.  Playing four years of varsity lacrosse, and ending my football career as a captain on the varsity team playing quarterback and linebacker, I was very fortunate to have multiple opportunities to be a leader.  Through my time in athletics, I gained not only important education on how to work with others, but how to be an effective leader, how to set and reach goals, and most importantly, how to deal with and overcome adversity.  These are qualities that are extremely important to possess if you’re looking to succeed in the real world.     
Yet, sports transcend simple life lessons on teamwork and leadership.  For many, athletics are a way of life, and sometimes the only path to success.  Ripley states that over a hundred years ago, at a time when education was being expanded, “sports, the thinking went, would protect boys’ masculinity and distract them from vices like gambling and prostitution.”  While the vices may have changed nowadays, sports have still offered a safe haven for many kids in rougher neighborhoods.  For parents who are looking for answers, as well as kids who want to stay away from drugs and crime in poverty-stricken areas, sports are the only choice.  It gives them something to spend their time on outside of school, and keeps them motivated to succeed.  In addition, sports are a way out of poverty for many kids.  For those who can’t afford college, there are athletic scholarships that many aim for in order to further their education, hoping to get a better job later down the road.  Ripley includes an example in her article of a high school named “Premont,” which abolished sports due to financial reasons.  She offered the fact that students still were able to participate in sports by joining club teams outside of school.  But, for teenagers living in poverty, they might not be able to afford playing for club teams.  In this way, if schools cut sports, the ever-increasing gap between the poor and the wealthy would only increase.  With this example, organized sports would become only a thing for the wealthy, and kids in bad neighborhoods would be left at a huge disadvantage. 
There is no denying part of Ripley’s argument.  Sports should not, under any circumstance, become the central focus of our schools’ priorities.  Olga Block, a co-founder of a school called Basis Tucson North argued, “the problem is that once sports become important to the school, they start colliding with academics.”  This concept that sports are taking away from academics is an issue that needs to be addressed at a lot of schools.  However, cutting sports is not the answer.  In her article, Ripley addressed the many financial needs of high school sports at one school in particular.  They need money for buses for the players, the band and cheerleaders, and substitute teachers for coaches on traveling game days.  But there are ways around these issues.  If you can’t afford to send your cheerleaders and band to away games, they don’t have to go.  Why are they traveling so far away that teachers need substitutes?  Play games with teams that aren’t so far away.  Naturally, sports will distract students from academics, but that’s the beautiful thing about it.  As long as school administrations act intelligently, athletics can’t hurt.  It’s a great escape for students who have been cooped up all day in a classroom.  It’s an opportunity to free your mind after a stressful day of cramming it with knew information.  And it’s finally a chance to get some exercise after sitting in a classroom all day.  In a country, where obesity is a blatant issue, dismissing athletics should be the last thing on our schools’ agendas.  It’s one thing to have a gym class for an hour once a week.  It’s a whole other thing to exercise for hours after school every day.  Sports, while a potentially dangerous distraction, are a great distraction.
All throughout her article, Ripley’s major claim focused around the comparison of the United States to other world powers.  On one particular math and critical thinking test, the United States scored 31st in the world, while un-athletic South Korea, she pointed out, scored 4th.  She cites multiple first-hand accounts of foreigners traveling to the US, and noticing the difference in school culture.  They all noticed the greater passion our teenagers had towards sports.  Still, I wouldn’t look at this as a negative.  Sports are a massive part of American’s culture.  Athletics are something that separates our country from others, and is a sign of our freedom.  The sporting industry has grown by quantum leaps in the past decades, and there’s good reason behind it.  Sports are entertaining; everyone loves sports, and they now permeate our culture and media like nothing else.  Sports are also a part of America’s rich history, which is passed down in family and community heritage.  By choosing to play sports over studying for six more hours after school everyday, we are using our constitutional right to do what we love.  On the other hand, it’s widely believed that the educational system in South Korea has been linked to the country’s high suicide rate.  Yes, they are reaping the benefits of putting their teens through an intensely competitive system, but do we really want to be like them?  By losing school sports, as a country, we are essentially becoming less American.     

 No matter what route we go, there seems to be a trade off that we are forced to make.  By keeping school athletics as they are currently, we run the risk of letting sports take priority over academics, and we pay the consequence for our fun in the global rankings when compared to places like South Korea.  By removing school athletics, and heightening the focus on academics, we are losing a vital component of our American culture, and are revoking indispensable freedoms from our youth.  The question becomes which reality you would rather see in our country.  Logically, we should see the global statistics as a need for change.  And undoubtedly, we need to assure that sports do not take priority over education.  But reforms can be made that do not involve the lessening of athletics, and there can be a happy balance between learning and fun.  Academics in America are already stressful enough as is; we do not need to add onto the intensity like these other countries.  Instead, we should be looking for a better way to learn, and focusing on quality over quantity.  If we choose to take away high school sports, we are creating more problems than we are fixing.  The teenagers in poverty-stricken areas look to sports as a life-changing mechanism, and the obesity crisis in America is something that needs to be taken seriously.  But in the end, sports can be just as beneficial to learning and education as sitting in a classroom.  We learn things that other people, and other cultures do not, and we have fun doing it.   

Thursday, October 23, 2014


As a die-hard Eagles fan, here is little something about my "dream sporting" event I would've attended if  I could choose from any game ever played.  

It was a chilly December afternoon in downtown Philadelphia.  The year was 1960, and the game was the NFL Championship.  Head coach Vince Lombardi, in only his second season at the helm, had his Green Bay Packers driving urgently into Eagles territory with precious seconds ticking off the clock.  The same Green Bay Packers that would go on to win five championships in the 60’s alone, and whose coach would eventually have the ultimate prize in football, the Lombardi Trophy, named after him.  But today was not their day.  Today belonged to the hometown Eagles playing in front of an overflowing Franklin Field, who had just recovered the lead in the fourth quarter to go up 17-13 on a short touchdown run.  If they could just play defense for a couple more seconds, they would win the championship for the first time since 1949.  The crowd of 67,000 rose to their feet as future Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr threw to future Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor at the Eagles 22 as the seconds continued to tick.  There was only one player that stood in between Taylor and the end zone, and he was tired.  Chuck Bednarik, number 60, had played every single snap of the football game thus far.  Many called him the “last of the 60-minute men” because he was the last player to go both ways (offense and defense) on a consistent basis.  On offense, he played center, on defense he played linebacker, and he even kicked on the kickoffs.  Known as “Concrete Charlie” from his offseason job selling concrete, he would also eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  And on this play, like always, he made the tackle.  Just ten yards in front of the end zone, Bednarik took Taylor to the ground and remained on top of him as the final seconds ticked away into eternity. The 1960 Philadelphia Eagles were World Champions.
Fast forward fifty-four years, two championship appearances, and a lot of coaches, and that is still the last time the city of Philadelphia was able to call themselves the best in the football world.  Of course, a lot has changed since then.  Nowadays, NFL championships are called Super Bowls, players make millions of dollars so they don’t need to work other jobs in the offseason, and the only event worth attending in Franklin Field is the Penn Relays.  To go back fifty-four years, to be an Eagles fan at that game, would have been a magical moment not just for me, but for any Eagles fan.  Over the course of Eagles history, it hasn’t always been ideal to focus on the present or even the future, so for many fans looking back to the times of the 40’s and the 60’s was the best option.  Growing up as an Eagles fan, living on the outskirts of the city of brotherly love, I was fortunate enough to live in the Andy Reid era of Eagles football, filled with great passing offenses and numerous playoff appearances.  Though, all the while, I heard and saw evidence of those tumultuous years, the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, when the Eagles were so bad that they had open tryouts and a guy named Vince Papale quit his job as a substitute teacher to play for the struggling squad.  Being raised around this team, the past struggles were visible in the older fans.  Eagles spectators have been known for being tough, violent, and loud, and I used to see these characteristics on display when I went down to Lincoln Financial Field with my father.  Every Sunday I’d see a fight somewhere in the stands or a fan from the opposing team get absolutely berated by the Eagles die-hards around him who were offended that someone would dare wear another jersey in their stadium.  It was about Eagles pride.  Nobody got to come into our house, eat our cheese-steaks, and cheer on the demise of our team.  Over time, this culture became engrained in me as well, and with experience I became familiar with appropriate ways to respond to bad calls, players getting injured, and untimely timeouts.  When you grow up around something like that, and you feel a strong common bond such as this, with everyone rooting together towards a seemingly impossible goal, it is hard not feel like you are a member of one big family.  We all experienced those hard losses together, we all cried when the Eagles lost the Super Bowl to the Raiders in ’81 and then the Patriots in ’04, and that’s what would make witnessing the 1960 Championship all the more sweeter.  As opposed to just remaining at the top for a long time, achieving something after coming from the bottom has a whole other appreciation that comes with it.  Watching that game and Bednarik make that tackle, I wouldn’t be happy just for myself, but for all the Eagles fans who knew that game, for a city of fans who have been through so much defeat, the taste of victory would be an amazing experience.    
Besides the history of the Eagles, my own personal history makes this game significant in my heart.  For as long as I can remember, football has been my favorite thing, my passion.  I watched football on the NFL Network even when there were no real games on, I read about football even when my teachers would tell us to pick a fiction book, and I played flag football when I was too young to play for my school and when the only youth team was a Church-run organization for Catholic children (I was and still am Jewish).  One thing that always captivated me about football was the toughness of the sport, physically and mentally.  So when I discovered Chuck Bednarik I was instantly drawn to his legacy.  He was the definition of toughness, the last to go both ways, and one of the most feared tacklers in NFL history.  Over my bed, for the majority of my childhood, hung the famous photo of his hit on Frank Gifford, standing over him again victorious, fist raised in the air.  And now, after playing high school football, I can relate
to how Bednarik must’ve felt.  I too often played both ways for my team, switching between linebacker and quarterback.  Those were the most challenging games of my life, and I was only doing it at the high school level.  For him to do that on the professional level and have the career that he did, it’s something you need to see to believe.  I was actually fortunate enough to meet the great Bednarik.  As a birthday present my father took me to Franklin Field to watch the University of Pennsylvania take on Yale.  The real reason we were there though, was because we knew Bednarik was going to be signing autographs.  In a tunnel under the stadium, I approached, unable to express my utter appreciation for all he had accomplished in his life, and he graciously signed my book that was about him.  But in addition to my personal connection I have with Bednarik, I also have a deep connection with professional football in general.  To go back and see Lombardi’s Packers would be to witness arguably the most historical team in pro football history.  There in front of my very eyes would be Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, and Ray Nitchske, and the famous Packer sweep.  But more important than any of the heroes on the field, would be Lombardi.  He was the pure embodiment of excellence, and would go down as the greatest to ever coach in the NFL.  And with all this green and gold greatness, I would have the satisfaction that the Eagles, my Eagles, had the courage to stand up to them and emerge triumphant.   

             If I could go back in time to see one game, this is the one that automatically, instantaneously comes to mind.  The date 1960, has become engrained in my psyche almost as much as my own birthday – 1995.  My favorite sport is, by a mile, football, and my favorite team, forever, will be the Eagles.  To know that we have not reached the pinnacle of our sport since that game hurts greatly.  It is the butt of every joke for other fans to tease us with.  But it will only make it that much better, when we finally get back to the Super Bowl, and we win it.  There’s a special place in my heart for the number 60.  1960’s the last time our team was at that pinnacle, my favorite Eagle of all time, Bednarik, wore the number 60, and he was also the last of the 60-minute men.  And best of all, he conquered the team of the 60’s, Lombardi’s legendary Packers.  Who, for the majority of the decade remained atop the NFL as champions; except for that one shining moment in 1960.  There, in the sun, in the heart of Philadelphia, the Eagles, my Eagles, were number one.