Sports: The Taboo Topic in High School Reform

I've avoided this topic long enough.  When we talk about high school reform, disappointing results from high schools, and students unprepared for college, we do our best to ignore the elephant in the room.  Criticizing the role of sports in high schools is akin to confessing to communist sympathies or an al Qaida connection.

Athletics is a good thing.  Students in athletics gain much from it:  exercise, camaraderie, teamwork and discipline.  Competition is also good.  I've seen students lackadaisical about teacher-assigned work bust their rears to do the same tasks in a competition.  Watch any sports team, debate competition, math team or science fair competitor.  You'll see kids challenging themselves and showing off.  Competition is motivational.

So if sports and competition are good, what's the beef?  Read any local newspaper and count the column inches devoted to high school sports compared to all other school news.  Check the high school teacher job listings online and notice how many require coaching.  Count the number of students absent from classes for sporting events on any given day.  Walk through your high school commons and look for posters that applaud academic achievement.  Try to motivate students to achieve academically in an environment where winning teams receive all the attention.  Look at the cadre of teachers at your high school and count how many were hired without any expectation of coaching.

Some bemoan the money spent on school sports.  Frankly, if you added coaches' pay and all the travel costs, it doesn't amount to much.  High school coaches in Oregon are paid a pittance for their many, many hours of dedication.  In terms of bang for the buck, high school athletics is quite a bargain.  The problem is not money.  The problem is the derailing of education at the high school level.

The first and most important harm is how we hire teachers.  Unlike elementary teachers who are (hopefully) selected based on their teaching promise, high school teachers are often selected to coach first, teach second.  Many potentially outstanding teachers never get a second look because they don't "fit the slot", i.e. they can't fill this year's coaching openings.  Think about the daunting task of the high school principal.  To offer football, volleyball, men's soccer, women's soccer, cross country, men's basketball, women's basketball, wrestling, baseball, softball and track (ignoring tennis, swimming, bowling, equestrian...), a high school will need 25 or more coaching positions filled every year.  My high school only had about 30 teachers and about 28 coaching positions.  Many teachers on staff coached their first few years but quit coaching though they kept on teaching.  That meant every teaching opening -- only 1 or 2 per year -- turned into a teacher/coach search.

Actually, it didn't.  Not because we could afford not to, but because I insisted on hiring the best teacher regardless of coaching needs.  But my predecessors thought differently and teacher/coaches who no longer coached made up a big part of the faculty.  When I chose a young teacher who did want to coach, I required she teach at least two full terms before being allowed to coach.  Why?  Because a new teacher needs many extra hours to set up her classroom, to create meaningful lessons and to plan learning.  Coaching competes for the time and usually wins, meaning shortcuts in the classroom that become ingrained habits.

The second concern is a confusion of priorities.  I have seen coaches, teachers, students and parents so focused on the almighty value of sports teams that ANY efforts in other directions are regarded with suspicion.  Focus your efforts on high risk students or high-achieving students and athletes say they're under-appreciated.  I am married to a coach, raised two student-athletes, attended 2-3 games every week and supported athletics in a hundred ways, including the building of a new track facility and women's team room.  But I also realized that more than half of our students were not involved in sports and deserved "equal time".  A high school principal who treats athletes like all other students is anti-sports. 

I could count on one hand the number of times parents complained to me that their students were not challenged or involved enough in a class.  But not a single week went by that I didn't handle complaints about coaches not playing a son or daughter enough or not developing athletes' skills sufficiently.   Too often, I have seen a parent still reliving his high school glory days in football and realized that that was the pinnacle of his life.  After graduation, nothing else went all that well.  Is peaking at 17 what we want?

So what if schools don't offer competitive sports?  Then we would be just like the rest of the world, the rest of the world where young people are still engaged in soccer or baseball or hockey.  One of the most-voiced observations of exchange students to the US is the over-emphasis on sports in high school.  Yet many are athletes.  In Europe, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere, communities offer sports as an after-school activity.  Students still practice, still compete, still develop their skills.  But it is cities and private clubs organizing, supervising and coaching.  High schools focus on education and frankly, they have the edge on us.

Move sports to the community level and watch high school education blossom in the US.  Watch academics take center stage and watch the quality of teaching improve.  Let us celebrate our scholars and academic achievement.  Let the community celebrate and promote athletics. 

This blog post is more likely to lead to my tarring and feathering than any other.  But at some point, the elephant in the room needs attention.  Want high school reform?  Start by stating out loud what high schools are for.


  1. Great post. I totally agree. Two things: After I graduated from high school, I went to school in Switzerland for a year at their "gymnasium" (college-prep) level. I was woefully behind in math, physics and chemistry, despite the fact that the class I was in was comprised entirely of students a whole year my junior; and despite that I was in the "honor" classes in those subjects my senior year of high school.

    Secondly, I just watched "Waiting For Superman". Almost "enough said"! There were a lot of shockers for me throughout the film, but what blew me clean out of the water and has nagged at me ever since I saw it was this: American students test among the lowest in academic subject matter, but HIGHEST in "confidence their answers are correct". What?! So, we're raising a generation that is completely wrong but thinks they're right?! What a terrible combination! One of the biggest problems I have in life in general is with people sporting these prideful, have-to-know attitudes; who can't/won't admit when they don't know, let alone admit when they're faced with the fact that they're flat-out wrong.

    That's a diversion from the subject of sports, though. Guess I took a rabbit trail.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Thanks, Emilie. If we value academics, we need to put them first or accept that having scholars isn't our goal. We could also work on the high poverty levels in the US and our historical tendency toward anti-intellectualism.

  3. Hi there. I just wandered into your blog, saw this post, thought I'd comment.

    I do not think sports belong--at all--in public schools. As a taxpayer, I pay for schools to *educate* students, not to provide them a place to play. I have nothing against play--we already do that, at home, at the playground, at the swimming pool, at Little League, at all of the places already available for kids to run around and get some fresh air.

    There is good evidence that football causes long-term brain damage. It does not belong in any learning institution.

    Sports do terrible things to schools. I hope someone listens to you, because goodness knows they aren't about to listen to me. :)


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