[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.