How High School Sports Could Save Our Schools?

May 6, 2016

Education writers rarely examine high school sports, but something is happening there that might help pull our schools out of the doldrums.

In the last school year, a new national survey found that 7.7 million boys and girls took part in high school sports. This is 55.5 percent of all students, according to the report from the National Federation of State High School Associations, and the 22nd straight year that participation had increased.

Despite two major recessions and numerous threats to cut athletic budgets to save academics, high schools have found ways to not only keep sports alive but increase the number of students playing. We have data indicating sports and other extracurricular activities do better than academic classes in teaching leadership, teamwork, time management and other skills crucial for success in the workplace.

Coaches might be the only faculty members still allowed by our culture and educational practice to get tough with students not making the proper effort. They have the advantage of teaching what are essentially elective non-credit courses. They can insist on standards of behavior that classroom teachers often cannot enforce because the stakes of dismissing or letting students drop their courses are too high.

I thought about this as I watched a high school football game and understood why football is still No. 1 for boys. Last year, it had 1.1 million participants, almost twice as many as No. 2 track and field, which draws 579,000 students.

The other top 10 boys’ sports, in descending order, were basketball, baseball, soccer, wrestling, cross country, tennis, golf and swimming/diving. (I was a nerdish and poor athlete, but participation helped me. I got a letter jacket I wore everywhere I went.)

The influence of sports on girls is growing even faster. Their participation is up 63 percent in the last 20 years, compared with 31 percent for boys. Their top sport is track and field, with 475,265 participants, followed by basketball, volleyball, fast-pitch softball, soccer, cross country, tennis, swimming/diving, competitive spirit squads and lacrosse, in that order. The survey missed some small schools with about 4 percent of U.S. enrollment.