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The Case for High School Sports

Dante Dorr

November 4, 2022


Today, public high schools (PHS) in the US are in dire financial straits. Yin and Partelow from an independent policy institute, the Center for American Progress, found that state funding for K-12 education went from $355,284,480 in the fiscal year of 2019 to $157,704,480 in the fiscal year of 2022. They also found that most funds for PHS come from State education budgets, which means that these cuts are highly damaging. When budgets are cut, programs are usually cut, with sports often garnering disproportionate negative attention. For example, in Virginia, with an estimated 187,000 students, Fairfax County proposed the complete removal of high school athletics (HSA) in the fall of 2015 in response to the projected budget cuts (Balingit). Though these cuts did not end up panning out, COVID-19 restrictions have forced some HSA associations to charge member schools more to participate in competitions (Harlan), meaning that athletics could become more expensive over time.


This issue is crucial to the 8 million student-athletes (Kelley and Carchia) and 15 million high school students (Duffin) who will be affected by these decisions. It would therefore make sense to upkeep programs that are most beneficial to students. Bailey, PhD in Pedagogy, finds that benefits could be measured physically, psychologically, and academically (Bailey). Extracurricular HSA programs bring substantial benefits in all three of these areas, cementing the responsibility for American PHS to maintain funding for these programs.


Stress, Community, and High School Athletics

According to a report from Pew Research Center, 70% of teenagers report that stress and depression are a “major problem” (Horowitz and Graff). PHS, therefore, must avoid potentially exacerbating this issue. Thus, PHS should not defund athletics programs, as they could reduce the likelihood of these issues developing. Sports participation reduces CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) (11), states Garcia-Falgueras, from the Official College of Psychology in Madrid. High levels of CRH “increase the likelihood of depression” and “stress” (11), logically suggesting that sports participation can help students manage these issues. The danger lies in what could potentially happen to student-athletes who rely on athletics to maintain psychological health if these programs were to be removed, as there is no guarantee that they will look to safe alternatives. One study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal found that high school students often turned to illicit substances to alleviate anxiety and stress (Leonard et al.) Therefore, PHS must maintain safe opportunities for anxiety and depression reduction, such as HSA programs to ensure student psychological wellbeing. That being said, this does not mean that athletics programs have the capacity to completely tackle the stress crisis, nor does it currently provide a method of coping for all students. Of course, it could still be incredibly valuable to the student-athletes who do use sports as a coping method, or to students who might use it in the future.


Additionally, athletics events can provide strong social opportunities for communities. For example, Reding and his colleagues from the University of South Alabama found that adults who are more identified with the sports teams would identify more with their hometown community (Reding et al). This stronger sense of community was also observed among students within the school community by Wann and his colleagues from Murray State University. They found that as students felt more connected to their school’s sports teams, their “social capital”–the compound value of their social interactions (Wann et al)–increased. Athletics events facilitate the growth of social capital among spectators, who could represent a substantial portion of the community. In layman’s terms, the community ritual of cheering for athletes could foster a stronger sense of community that deepens social bonds. Therefore, the obstruction of athletics programmes could harm this community ritual, thus harming school and local communities tied to HSAs as well.


Physical Benefits of High School Athletics

Besides psychological benefits, HSA give students physical benefits that may not be substituted with alternative programs. Research from Dohle and Wansink, Senior Researcher at ETH Zurich and former Professor at Cornell University, respectively, found through a case study of 712 male WWII vets (the admissions screening for service would standardize levels of fitness and gender), that participation in high school varsity sports is highly correlated with longevity. They found a 0.173 correlation factor between varsity sports participation and physical activity in old age and were more likely to have better “health status in old age” (8). This correlative figure means, as the authors note, that high school sports are the best predictor for long term physical activity–which is likely to lead to long term health. Another study has found that sports programs also benefit students in a more immediate time frame. Research from Renfrow, Caputo, and Otto, who have PhDs in kinesiology, exercise science, and health and exercise, respectively, indicate that more participation in sports in high school results in “increased health-related physical fitness as measured by Fitnessgram in...high school males” (123). This suggests that more opportunities to join extracurricular sports programs lead to lower “childhood inactivity and obesity” (123) by improving student fitness levels. Both papers provide compelling evidence that HSA have strong benefits to physical health, but the difference in the focus of time frames allow for the insight that athletics can aid students throughout a lot of points in their life. Therefore, the removal of athletics opportunities could come at the expense of significant physical virtues–a painful loss that should discourage PHS from defunding extracurricular athletics programs.


It could be argued, however, that the 1,307,414 reported injuries among US high school athletes between 2018 and 2019 (Comstock and Pierpoint, 16) obviate the physical benefits mentioned previously. However, this number, when broken down, shows that a large portion of these injuries are relatively minor, with more significant injuries, such as concussions, being already met with stricter and more thorough preventative measures (18). Ergo, the injuries do not outweigh the potential physical benefits.


The Effect on Academics

Besides the potential for physical injury, the ostensibly questionable effects athletics may have on academic performance has been a common objection. One author, Amanda Ripley, NYT bestseller and investigative journalist for the Atlantic, argues that the emphasis on high schools’ athletics is responsible for the decline in academic performance. As they say, “Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education.” (Ripley). The argument that HSA impedes on the academic mission of a school must come with an obvious implication: as schools dedicate more attention towards HSA, academic performance must drop. Ripley supports this implication in her argument by comparing the popularity of HSA in 2013 with poor international standardized test scores. However, there are two flaws with this argument. Firstly, dedication to athletics programmes does not necessarily have to come at the expense of academic performance. Secondly, there are other viable measures to gauge academic success than the international standardized tests.


Greene, Professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, and Bowen, post-doctoral fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, provide evidence that supports the existence of the first flaw. While surveying PHS in Ohio, they found a “...10 percentage point increase in overall winning percentage is associated with a 0.25 percentage point increase in the number of students at or above academic proficiency”. Evidently, even though athletes and administrators dedicated more time to increasing athletic success, academic performance did not decrease. Therefore, this case study shows that keeping athletics programmes would not necessarily harm academic performance.

Secondly, athletics programmes are strongly correlated to other positive academic behaviours. Robinson, who was the assistant principal for Manchester Local Schools, provides statistical examples from his school that highlight the proliferation of these kinds of behaviours. They found that “despite making up 30% of student pop., they only accounted for 10% of disciplinary problems leading to suspension” (27). Although the lack of currency (this paper was published in the 90s) and the limited sample size–which was solely limited to their school–substantially limits the meaningfulness of any conclusions drawn in the paper, Robinson has published his analysis in a peer-reviewed journal and has experience in education as an assistant principal, so it would be reasonable to assume that his findings are somewhat meaningful, though less so than other mentioned papers. Beyond more immediate behaviours and from more current research, Hitt, Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University, and the aforementioned Bowen elaborate on more long-term behaviours encouraged by HSA. They assert that student-athletes were more likely to go to college, earn higher wages, and report having positive relationships with personnel (10). While Ripley may insist on using international standardized tests as the only measure for academic success, there are many other equally valuable metrics. As Robinson, Bowen, and Hitt show, gauges of discipline, success later in life, and connections within the school community are boosted by athletics, which would be a strong benefit lost if athletics were to be removed, and potentially stifled if it were to be defunded.


Therefore, while they have a point when they say that HSA could detract from one measure of academic success, Ripley’s overall conclusion falls flat. HSA do not detract from the academic mission of schools and even benefits students in other measures of academic success. So while there may be other legitimate reasons to defund athletics, it should not be done on the argument that athletics come at the expense of academics.


The Ethical Obligation for School-Sponsored Programs

While the benefits of school-sponsored athletics programmes are apparent, there are other options. For example, it could be done in private clubs to not take from public schools’ budget. However, this comes at a large cost, as many financially disadvantaged students would be barred from the benefits mentioned above. As private teams are relatively expensive, poorer students could be unable to afford participation, so they must be school-sponsored to ensure equitable access. Gregory, from Time magazine, found that as private clubs replace public teams, fewer kids have access to organised sports. They state that 41% of children from households earning $100,000 or more participate in sports, whereas only 19% of children from households earning $25,000 or less participate. This worrying statistic highlights the unequal athletics opportunities caused by private clubs. An article by Barone, also in Time magazine, and a paper by Kornrich and Furstenberg, from the Center for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, shows precisely why this is true. Barone found the national average annual costs of various sports:

(1) The average annual costs of baseball teams were $4,044;

(2) the average annual costs of football teams were $2,739; and

(3) the average annual costs of basketball teams were $1,143


Research from Kornrich and Furstenberg shows why these costs are worrying. According to data from 2007, those in the bottom 10% by income spend $750 a year on child enrichment compared to the top 10%, who spend $6573 a year. In this context, child enrichment simply means extracurricular activities outside of school, notably athletics. Students from lower economic backgrounds would struggle to attain the unique psychological, physical, and potentially academic benefits of HSA programs.


This conclusion makes public schools responsible for maintaining these responsibilities for students. The US Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s mission statement is to provide a “well-rounded education” (Georgia). It seems highly likely that, with the extensive developments that school-sponsored athletics provide, athletics are necessary to complete the development for children. Thus, to maintain the purpose and integrity of public education, public schools in the US must remain ardent in ensuring these programs for all students, regardless of economic status.


Limtations

While athletics are undoubtedly a necessary component for student development, an implication of maintaining these programs is that the money must come from school budgets; the same budget used to fund other programs. Therefore, another crucial component of this debate is comparing the benefits of athletics programs to other programs. Comparing these programs universally, however, is an almost impossible task, seeing as the types of programs and costs vary from school to school. A particular limitation of the argument presented thus far is that it cannot make direct comparisons between benefits of other programs that could lose out on funding due to a lack of research. Because of this issue of comparison, one avenue that budget research should look into is quantitative comparisons of physical, psychological, and academic benefits of other extracurricular programs and athletics.


Conclusion

The crux of this debate lies in what decision US high schools should take to benefit students the most. School-sponsored high school athletics programs are an easy way to encourage physical and psychological development in all students, regardless of economic background, while also providing academic support–in a way that schools without such programs cannot. This is the mark of a well-rounded education. Students deserve to receive a well-rounded education and no one should deprive them of the plethora of benefits that high school athletics have to offer or subject them to the potential damage that removing these programs can do.