Are high school sports hurting American education?


Even as a lifelong sports fan and an incidental jock myself when I was in school, I have long since begun to wonder if the undue emphasis on athletics in our culture has detracted from the academic mission in institutions that are supposed to be educating American teens.

Amanda Ripley has a PROVOCATIVE ARTICLE on this matter in The Atlantic:

The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student—unlike most countries worldwide. And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?

Every year, thousands of teenagers move to the United States from all over the world, for all kinds of reasons. They observe everything in their new country with fresh eyes, including basic features of American life that most of us never stop to consider.

One element of our education system consistently surprises them: “Sports are a big deal here,” says Jenny, who moved to America from South Korea with her family in 2011. Shawnee High, her public school in southern New Jersey, fields teams in 18 sports over the course of the school year, including golf and bowling. Its campus has lush grass fields, six tennis courts, and an athletic Hall of Fame. “They have days when teams dress up in Hawaiian clothes or pajamas just because—‘We’re the soccer team!,’ ” Jenny says.

By contrast, in South Korea, whose 15-year-olds rank fourth in the world (behind Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong) on a test of critical thinking in math, Jenny’s classmates played pickup soccer on a dirt field at lunchtime. They brought badminton rackets from home and pretended there was a net. If they made it into the newspaper, it was usually for their academic accomplishments.

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. (The U.S. ranks 31st on the same international math test.) The challenges we do talk about are real ones, from undertrained teachers to entrenched poverty. But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?

When I surveyed about 200 former exchange students last year, in cooperation with an international exchange organization called AFS, nine out of 10 foreign students who had lived in the U.S. said that kids here cared more about sports than their peers back home did. A majority of Americans who’d studied abroad agreed.

Even in eighth grade, American kids spend more than twice the time Korean kids spend playing sports, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics. In countries with more-holistic, less hard-driving education systems than Korea’s, like Finland and Germany, many kids play club sports in their local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would they?

When I was growing up in New Jersey, not far from where Jenny now lives, I played soccer from age 7 to 17. I was relieved to find a place where girls were not expected to sit quietly or look pretty, and I still love the game. Like most other Americans, I can rattle off the many benefits of high-school sports: exercise, lessons in sportsmanship and perseverance, school spirit, and just plain fun. All of those things matter, and Jenny finds it refreshing to attend a school that is about so much more than academics. But as I’ve traveled around the world visiting places that do things differently—and get better results—I’ve started to wonder about the trade-offs we make.

Nearly all of Jenny’s classmates at Shawnee are white, and 95 percent come from middle- or upper-income homes. But in 2012, only 17 percent of the school’s juniors and seniors took at least one Advanced Placement test—compared with the 50 percent of students who played school sports.

As states and districts continue to slash education budgets, as more kids play on traveling teams outside of school, and as the globalized economy demands that children learn higher-order skills so they can compete down the line, it’s worth reevaluating the American sporting tradition. If sports were not central to the mission of American high schools, then what would be?


In many schools, sports are so entrenched that no one—not even the people in charge—realizes their actual cost. When Marguerite Roza, the author of Educational Economics, analyzed the finances of one public high school in the Pacific Northwest, she and her colleagues found that the school was spending $328 a student for math instruction and more than four times that much for cheerleading—$1,348 a cheerleader. “And it is not even a school in a district that prioritizes cheerleading,” Roza wrote. “In fact, this district’s ‘strategic plan’ has for the past three years claimed that math was the primary focus.”

Many sports and other electives tend to have lower student-to-teacher ratios than math and reading classes, which drives up the cost. And contrary to what most people think, ticket and concession sales do not begin to cover the cost of sports in the vast majority of high schools (or colleges)…

Many of the costs are insidious, Roza has found, “buried in unidentifiable places.” For example, when teacher-coaches travel for game days, schools need to hire substitute teachers. They also need to pay for buses for the team, the band, and the cheerleaders, not to mention meals and hotels on the road. For home games, schools generally cover the cost of hiring officials, providing security, painting the lines on the field, and cleaning up afterward. “Logistics are a big challenge,” says Jared Bigham, until recently the supervising principal of two schools in Copperhill, Tennessee, and a former teacher, coach, and player. “Even though the coaches are in charge of the budgets, I still have to oversee them and approve each expenditure. You’re looking at 10 different budgets you have to manage.”

That kind of constant, low-level distraction may be the greatest cost of all. During football season in particular, the focus of American principals, teachers, and students shifts inexorably away from academics. Sure, high-school football players spend long, exhausting hours practicing (and according to one study, about 15 percent experience a brain injury each season), but the commitment extends to the rest of the community, from late-night band practices to elaborate pep rallies to meetings with parents. Athletics even dictate the time that school starts each day: despite research showing that later start times improve student performance, many high schools begin before 8 a.m., partly to reserve afternoon daylight hours for sports practice.

American principals, unlike the vast majority of principals around the world, make many hiring decisions with their sports teams in mind—a calculus that does not always end well for students. “Every school in the entire country has done this,” Marcia Gregorio, a veteran teacher in rural Pennsylvania, told me. “You hire a teacher, and you sometimes lower the standards because you need a coach.”

But here’s the thing: most American principals I spoke with expressed no outrage over the primacy of sports in school. In fact, they fiercely defended it. “If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have more athletic opportunities for students, not less,” Bigham, the former Tennessee principal, told me. His argument is a familiar one: sports can be bait for students who otherwise might not care about school. “I’ve seen truancy issues completely turned around once students begin playing sports,” he says. “When students have a sense of belonging, when they feel tied to the school, they feel more part of the process.”


Though the research on student athletes is mixed, it generally suggests that sports do more good than harm for the players themselves…

But only 40 percent of seniors participate in high-school athletics, and what’s harder to measure is how the overriding emphasis on sports affects everyone who doesn’t play. One study of 30,000 students at the University of Oregon found that the grades of men who did not play sports went down as the football team’s performance improved. Both men and women reported that the better their football team did, the less they studied and the more they partied.

Exercise, without a doubt, is good for learning and living. But these benefits accrue to the athletes, who are in the minority. What about everyone else?


Imagine, for a moment, if Americans transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports—the rankings, the trophies, the ceremonies, the pride—to high-school academics. We would look not so different from South Korea, or Japan, or any of a handful of Asian countries whose hypercompetitive, pressure-cooker approach to academics in many ways mirrors the American approach to sports. Both approaches can be dysfunctional; both set kids up for stress and disappointment. The difference is that 93 percent of South Korean students graduate from high school, compared with just 77 percent of American students—only about 2 percent of whom receive athletic scholarships to college.



  1. A very interesting piece, thanks Pat.

    When we moved from Rockford to the greater Milwaukee area my wife and I were struck by just this phenomenon.

    In Rockford, while “sports talk” amongst parents was common, so was academic talk. In fact, given the presence of the magnet school, the academic talk was much more prominent.

    Here, sports talk dominates while academic talk is more rare. I have actually had parents offer their condolences when I tell them my son is interested in music and doesn’t play a high school sport!

  2. Craig Knauss


    When I went to Auburn H.S., we had a nice stadium, practice fields, a nice gym, and auxiliary gym, a swimming pool, etc. We also had a so-so library. At least the science labs, etc. were acceptable.

    When my daughters went to Glenbard South H.S., in Glen Ellyn, they had a nice stadium, a large field house with indoor track, tennis courts, practice fields, etc. And an auditorium that only sat a few hundred people in a 1400 student school where almost 1/4 of the students was in a music program. The Glenbard District finally built a decent auditorium there in time for my youngest daughter’s senior year, after the stadium got new lights.

    Out here in WA state, I once told a co-worker, who was a former teacher, that we put way too much emphasis on sports and not enough on academics. She was skeptical, so I gave our local newspaper as an example. I held up the school sports section for her. She looked unconvinced until I told her to pull out the academics section. There wasn’t any! And this is a community that used to have one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the U.S.

    Foreign students come to our country for a better education and then see our universities spend hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading the football stadium. What does that tell them about our priorities?

  3. My daughter graduated from Auburn Academy this year with honors. She played several sports during her high school years, but academics always came first.

    Students who don’t put academics first at the Academy aren’t going to last long. Athletics are a secondary consideration at best.

  4. Craig: Big-time sports more than pay their way at certain colleges. In some cases, they rake in millions of dollars.

    The problem at issue here is the over-emphasis of sports at the high school level.

  5. I’m what you call a sports junkie. I grew up playing every sport you can play. In class when I was suppose to be doing school work I was drawing up plays for the after school football game, or I was plotting a way to keep the tall kid from getting all the rebounds. I’m all grown up now and spend my weeknights coaching youth sports. Most of the time I coach club sports but have done a few rec league teams. I have even done a little coaching on the high school level. Some people are good at math. Others are good at writing. I’m good at coaching. Sadly the pay stinks, but I love it.

    IMO it is time to do away with school sports. imo the unions have ruined school sports. The problem is a teacher always gets first dibs on a school coaching position. It doesn’t matter what the teacher knows about the sport. Of course the schools push to keep these positions filled by teachers. If a school can’t find a teacher to do the job the next person with dibs is someone with a 4 year degree. Followed by a two year degree. And then finally someone with a high school diploma. To me this makes no sense. These positions should go to the best man or women for the job. Kids learn a lot about teamwork and what you can achieve through hard work. My daughter was an average student in grade school. Between 6th and 7th grade she worked her butt off at softball and went from an ok player to a very good player. I asked her what would happen if she put that same effort into her school work. All the sudden as a junior she is top ten in her class.

    Here is a couple of examples of why coaching jobs should be open to everyone. When I was younger I was a stud baseball player. I was good enough that I played up an age group. I was a catcher and always the best hitter on my team. When our league put together an all star team I was the starter. Once I got to high school I didn’t even make the team. During the summer I played with kids that played varsity, but now I wasn’t even good enough to make the freshman team. How could this be? Well the head coach was married to one of my 8th grade teachers. This teacher didn’t much care for me. She was always rude and my parents went to the school about how she treated me. I guess they got the last laugh. After all what was I going to do, move?

    My daughters 7th grade year she was the starting point guard. She played every minute of every game. She was the only one on the team that could dribble. Well one game she got in foul trouble and the coach sat her down with 4 fouls. The coach who was clueless thought you fouled out when you had 4 fouls. When the other teams point guard got her 4th foul she started complaining to the ref that she was still in the game. Only then did she learn how many fouls a player could get. This coach was one of these please please coach the team teachers. She never coached again and half the kids on the team followed her lead. At that high school level their is 2 girls from that team that still play.

    When i coached high school sports I asked the head coach why a certain girl was going to play over another girl who I felt was better. He told me he didn’t want to upset the girls father because he would go to the AD and complain. He was right, the guy had already went and complained when the rumor started this other girl would play over his daughter. I wanted no part of the drama and stepped down. The coach never made the change and the team stunk. But he kept the vip parent happy and that was all that mattered. Heck of a lesson to teach the kids. The sad part is this happened to more then a few kids. This is why you see such a low number of seniors that play sports. They get sick off the BS and stop playing.

    The other issue is a lot of these coaching positions go to kids fresh out of college. They are broke and can use the extra cash. The problem is they are often let go at the end of the year and apply at a different school. Then the next kid comes in and the school hires them to coach. Why not hire someone from the community that could coach the team for a longer period? But the union has a contact and the students are the ones that pay.

    Club sports is way different. The best kids play because if they don’t the next year they will be playing against you. You have better coaching because these coaches eat sleep and breathe these sports. If you stink as a coach your kids will find a coach that doesn’t stink. If you can’t run a practice your kids will find a coach that can. It isn’t a 3 month project for these coaches. You also have better teammates. To often at the high school level you have kids that play just to say they are on the team. There is none of this at the club level. It cost to much money. This may sound nasty but you could hear my girls passing gas during conditioning because they were trying so hard. Your not going to get that on a school sport. The kids just don’t care. They want the letter and their picture in the yearbook. The coaches that can make these kids care are the ones that win. Look at Auburns football team. Dan Appino motivates his kids. Kids are kids. Their is no difference in ability for one school to the next. It is the coach that can get these kids to work hard that win. It is hard to find a motivator when you are begging the science teacher to please coach.

    Lets cut sports out of the school budgets and lower our taxes. Then the parents that want to their kids playing sports can foot the bill. This gives them the option to pick what level fits their kid the best. Some kids are better suited for ymca ball. Some kids are better suited for higher level club teams.

    I could go on. Catch me in 6 weeks when basketball starts and my daughters school runs out this years fresh out of college coach.

  6. I forgot one more example on why teachers shouldn’t be the only ones coaching. The football coach needed an assistant. He asked one teacher if he would do it. That teacher told him he knew nothing about football. The coach told him that doesn’t matter. If you couldn’t guess we stink at football. Honestly we stink at all sports.

  7. Craig Knauss


    First, I don’t know much about “Auburn Academy”. It didn’t exist back in the late ’60s when I went there. Hopefully, some things have been upgraded. And I see where RPS is planning an upgrading of the school. It’s about time.

    Second, your comment “Big-time sports more than pay their way at certain colleges” is correct in that it only applies to “certain colleges”. Unfortunately that’s only a small portion of Division I schools, such as the Big 10, SEC, PAC 10, etc. Is it true for any of the MAC and Mountain West schools or some of the second tier Division I conferences? And certainly not for schools like Valparaiso, even though they are in Division I basketball. For Division II schools like Eastern Illinois, Central Washington, etc., forget it. Higher tuition for the entire student body pays for athletics at schools like those.

  8. Milton Waddams

    When I went to NIU, I paid $30ish dollars a credit hour to subsidize the Convocation Center (basketball stadium). I was there for an education, I couldn’t care less about basketball, but I was forced to pay for it. Complete BS.

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