About 10 years ago, I was attending a play at our local theater, which was across the street from our town high school. It was 11 p.m., and one of the actors was closing the show with a soliloquy when sirens started sounding outside. The fire truck’s deafening sound went on and on without moving, drowning out the actor, who valiantly persevered despite the flashing lights and loud noise. I wanted to jump out of my seat to do something, but the man next to me whispered that it was probably not an emergency but rather was signifying a win by the high school basketball team, since that day they’d been competing to qualify for the state championship. Sure enough, he was right. So for several minutes, the neighbors in this small town, and the actors and audience members at the play, endured the alarm bells of fire late at night to celebrate a sports victory. I learned that this was a longstanding tradition in the town. Yet, no such tradition existed to celebrate a victory by the math team or to honor the achievements of students solving actual problems in the community.
When my son had just started his freshman year at this high school, he had an after-school dentist appointment that I’d scheduled a year earlier, which conflicted with basketball practice. His coach told him that if he kept the appointment, he wouldn’t be able to play in the upcoming game. He told my son to reschedule the appointment during the school day, since missing class came with no such penalty. That same year, the school was actively raising huge sums of money not to offer more teacher professional development, update the outdated science labs, or otherwise improve the academic program, but to resurface the gym floor.
Welcome to our obsession with team sports in American schools—at least the popular sports that gain the most attention, like basketball and football.
Certainly, team sports have their place. There is much to be gained from participating in them, including fitness, teamwork, self-discipline, and learning to fail and persist. Yet by high school, just over half of American students are on a sports team. The rest do not receive these benefits and may have little access to any meaningful fitness opportunities at school.
Star athletes have the most to gain, as well as the most to lose, by our obsession with sports. Many schools will ignore declining academic achievements among their best athletes, whose success in a sport bolsters school morale (good for the school) and leads to potential university scholarships (good for the athlete). For the lucky few who gain access to universities and scholarships through sports, the focus on athletics then becomes even more pronounced. Because the university stands to make so much money on the athlete, academic achievement is often ignored entirely as the best athletes coast through college classes and devote their entire college career to athletic success.
But let’s remember how rare such success is, and how easy it is for an injury to permanently derail even the best athlete. Thus, most great-but-not-superb athletes will not ultimately benefit if they don’t gain the non-sports knowledge and skills they will need in order to achieve life success, not just sports success.
Who really wins in this system? Is our prioritization of team sports worth the money, focus, and unintended negative consequences? What might a healthier approach look like? How might using a solutionary process lead us toward a better system?
First, we need to name and identify the issues of concern and ask ourselves questions that can lead to wiser approaches and solutions to the problems caused by our obsession with team sports. Such questions might include:
- Why are our schools so focused on team sports?
- Is our valorization of team sports serving children in the best ways?
- Who benefits and who is harmed by this system, and how can we make sure that any systemic changes we make don’t have unintended negative consequences for the beneficiaries?
- How might we de-emphasize team sports in our schools, and what should we be emphasizing instead?
- Should team sports be school-based, or should they be community-based as they are in Finland, which has one of the best educational systems in the world?
- How should we allocate limited educational resources wisely for the sake of all children?
- Since we do have sports-focused schools, how can we create more equity within sports, since children with access to private lessons or summer camps have a better chance of making a team than students with just as much potential but fewer resources?
- How can we ensure that every student benefits from fitness programs, not just sports-inclined kids?
Next, we need to find leverage points for creating change. Leverage points refer to those places where a small change can have a big impact. These might include:
- Policy leverage points, such as the school policy my son encountered his freshman year.
- Budgetary leverage points, which might include re-allocating funds toward the most essential and impactful educational initiatives and/or funding a variety of fitness programs that serve all children rather than funding team sports almost exclusively.
- Media leverage points, whereby this issue is brought to the attention of greater numbers of people.
I don’t want to diminish or ignore the ways in which team sports can be profoundly beneficial. For some young people, sports may be one of the only places where they experience attentive adult guidance and coaching, a sense of belonging, achievements that build confidence, and opportunities to develop self-discipline and collaboration that spill over into other aspects of their lives. This isn’t an “either/or” but a “both, and.” We can loosen our obsession without abandoning the good.
My personal dream—and the one I’m working hard to implement through my work at the Institute for Humane Education—is that all schools will have solutionary teams, not just athletic teams, and that every child will participate. Student solutionaries will collaborate to solve local, national, and global problems that are of concern to them. They’ll implement their solutions and present their work at solutionary fairs. The best ideas will be shared by the media, funded by social entrepreneurs, and spread widely. And in the process, young people will experience meaningful, real-world accomplishments; learn teamwork; cultivate discipline; experience failures and successes and grow from both; and contribute to their communities and societies. While I wouldn’t want a team’s “win” to be broadcast by sirens sounding at night, I do think such teams would be worth valorizing.