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Like Academics, Should School Sports be Open to All? Study Finds Lifelong Benefits of Athletics

Updated on May 29, 2015

Should Students be Given Open Access to School Sports?

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Given the Benefits, Can We Deny Sports to Teens?

I was a nerd in high school. I was short, pudgy, myopic, and asthmatic. At the time, my sophomore year, I thought I wanted to go to college at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. To get in, I figured I needed to prove that I had brawn as well as brains. Having played soccer in youth leagues and on a private school team in fifth and sixth grades, I thought I had a chance of getting a varsity letter at my 5A public high school team.

Oh, how wrong I was! It did not take long for the head coach to tell me, bluntly, that I would not make the team. Then, confirming my stereotype as a nerd, he offered me the position of team videographer/manager. Upset, I never went to another practice and did not try out for the team. In the spring, I finished out my physical fitness credit by taking track. Needless to say, I did not try out for track, either. I asked the coach what would happen if I couldn't run the mile in the time he stated. "Then you shouldn't be here," was his response.

As a high school teacher, I cannot imagine the controversy that would erupt if I dared tell a student that he or she was not capable, or worthy, of doing something. In the classroom, nobody fails to "make the team." Nobody is told that they "shouldn't be here." Teachers are instructed to keep everyone passing and to make mission.

It says a lot that we demand excellence in athletics but turn a blind eye to student apathy, disrespect, and rampant grade inflation. Purity of sport is sacrosanct, but academic performance is a "meh." A college athlete caught doping or cheating during a match would be reviled and condemned. A college student caught cheating on a classroom test would, today, be given a veritable slap on the wrist.

I assume that much of the unequal treatment of academics and athletics springs from the idea that academics are necessary and athletics are supplemental. All kids need academics, but not all kids need sports. We can, therefore, bar kids from sports but not from the classroom. Despite strains of anti-intellectualism, our society champions the notion that education is a must for career success. We must do everything we can to keep teenagers on this path to career success. Sports are exciting, thrilling, but ultimately of little importance, right?

New research suggests the opposite. According to TIME, a recently-published study in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies determined that being a high school athlete afforded on lifelong benefits in "leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect." The stereotype of the high school jock being relegated to low-wage jobs and reporting to the high school nerd, who is now the boss, is not nearly as accurate as we once thought. It turns out that being an athlete helps you become a competent, sociable leader.

Certainly, this fits with research indicating that height, good looks, and confidence help people earn considerably bigger paychecks. We prefer our bosses and leaders to be tall, attractive, and confident. Athletes tend to be taller, more physically fit, and more confident than geeks. For better or worse, it looks like the prom king stays king.

Given this data, should more be done to help all young people achieve this leadership ability, self-confidence, and self-respect? Should all young people be given access to the sports field as well as the classroom? Is it fair to have tryouts for public school sports teams that automatically cut teens from rosters? At the very least, shouldn't all students have the ability to be on the team and work toward becoming starting players?

We have encouraged grade inflation in the classroom on the grounds that the classroom is what matters and nobody should be denied a diploma or a degree. But now that we know that sports have a similarly important role in student development and success, do we need to change our thinking? Is it the competition and high stakes of athletics that helps make student-athletes better, more confident leaders? Might students' classroom performance improve if success was not automatically guaranteed?

Should we make the classroom more like sports...or sports more like the classroom? Either way you slice it, it is undeniable that we can no longer view one as a necessity to which students have an inalienable right and one as a luxury which is fair to grant only to the genetically blessed.


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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 

      3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Totally agree with your conclusions. Sports is so important for self-esteem and just learning how to deal with disappointment as well as physical pain. This trend over the past 20 years of elite travel teams and recruiting of 8th graders has gotten ridiculous. Football is the only sport now where you can enter high school and have a reasonable chance of getting on the team without jumping through the proverbial hoops for several years . I would make sports (and any activity) mandatory for graduation. Two semesters (or 3 qtrs. depending on the district). That would require an infusion of state funding because so many parents can't afford it. But if we want kids to stay out of trouble, this is one way to do it. Voted up and shared.

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