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Case Against High School Sports Transfers Well to College

The Atlantic Magazine has a comprehensive look at the case against high school sports. The arguments go beyond talk about corruption and dumb jock stereotypes and look at the impact of focusing resources and attention on sports programs in high school. Some of the key points:

  • The primary justification for high school sports, that it provides an incentive to students who otherwise would not be interested in school, is not supported by research.
  • The genesis of interscholastic athletics dates back not to ideas about improving academics, but to make sure students did not turn into “stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth.”
  • The article cites the success of both foreign schools, which have never had sports, and domestic schools, like one in Texas which cut almost all sports, a college which transitioned to wellness programs instead of intercollegiate athletics, and charter schools which have eschewed football.
  • Aside from the money, interscholastic sports cuts down on lesson preparation and the attention of students who do not participate in sports.

The argument against high school sports is not surprising. Beyond the academic concerns, high schools are being squeezed for money even if sports have been spared the brunt of cuts. Elite club teams are less an alternative to high school sports, as the author Amanda Ripley suggests, but competitors, drawing away the best talent from scholastic programs. Concussion research and litigation could result in massive liability and public backlash toward public schools which use tax dollars to sponsor contact sports that come to be seen as too dangerous.

In fact, the one major caveat of the article is that it is less a case against high school sports and more a case against high school football. Football uses more teacher-coaches, costs more money, and dominates the academic experience in a way that other sports do not. Ripley notes a number of schools which have had success not in getting rid of athletics completely, but in getting rid of football specifically.

The big question here is what this means for college athletics and the NCAA. It could impact college sports in two big ways.

First is just how easy the arguments against high school sports can be changed into arguments against college sports. The article even cites a University of Oregon study that found that as the football team got better, grades of all male students went down and both male and female students reported they studied less and partied more. The need of colleges to recruit allows them to lean on the Flutie Effect as an additional justification. But if confronted with more research about the negative effects of athletics on the university generally, will the return on investment be enough?

Second is how intertwined college and high school athletics are. The NCAA continues to favor high school athletics over club sports in recruiting rules. If club sports begin competing for the best prospects and more high schools start cutting sports, the NCAA eventually needs to adapt. Football coaches cannot be asked to only evaluate at high school football games if many football players no longer have a high school team. Basketball coaches would be limited to only evaluating athletes in person a few weekends out of the year. This is just another reason the NCAA needs to get a handle on club and AAU sports instead of simply limiting the amount of recruiting that can go on there.

Everyone who follows the NCAA or is at all invested in NCAA reform needs to remember that the NCAA sits in between and has to balance two competing factions. For everyone who wants semi-pro, minor league teams with little academic nexus, there are just as many people who question whether we should have interscholastic athletics at all. The NCAA needs to be aware of both, because leaning too far to one side or the other will lead to even more criticism.

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