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Testing the educational purpose of athletics

Last year, 16 North Carolina high school boy’s football teams played 16 games between late August and mid-December. Over the same period, the UNC Tar Heels and N.C. State Wolfpack men’s football teams played 13 games, counting the post-season bowls.

I mention this simple statistical contrast as a way to introduce a proposal to educators, administrators, parents, students, sports fans, news media and all interested citizens:

Let’s have a robust, civil and informed discussion about the educational role, finances, equity and scale of high school athletics in North Carolina.

Most high schools now play 11 football games. Teams that qualify for playoffs can end up playing 13, 14, 15, and, for the state championship contenders in each classification, 16 games. In boys’ basketball, the standard regular schedule has 23 games, with playoff teams going up to 30 games.

I focus on boy’s football and basketball as the headline-and-revenue generating sports that come accompanied by cheerleaders, bands, booster clubs and large crowds. But of course my questions could apply to boy’s baseball, girl’s basketball and soccer, and other sports.

What is the right number of competitive, inter-school games for adolescents? More than a dozen football games, and more than two dozen basketball games, strikes me as excessive, but let’s talk about it. Should the regular season be shortened? Could the post-season be made more compact, or even eliminated? What’s the educational purpose of playoffs that stretch for about a month?

Amanda Ripley, author of “The Smartest Kids in the World – and How They Got That Way,” has observed that “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.”

Ripley’s essay on high school sports ran in the October 2013 issue of The Atlantic. The magazine’s editors promoted her essay on the cover with the provocative headline, “How Sports are Ruining High Schools: The Real Reason U.S. Students are Falling Behind.”

Well, that hyped-up headline doesn’t reflect my views. I come down closer to the opinion expressed by H.G. Buzz Bissinger, who wrote in The New York Times that “getting rid of high school football is a terrible idea. What is needed is a turning down of the volume…” Bissinger is the author of a classic account of high school football, “Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and a Dream,” a book that spawned both a movie and a superb TV series.

Truth is, I am a product of the team-sports culture that Bissinger has chronicled. I grew up in Baton Rouge as Louisiana State University emerged as a football powerhouse and its star running back Billy Cannon won the 1959 Heisman Trophy. In high school from 1960 to 1965, I played three years of both varsity football and basketball.

A month ago, I attended the 50-year reunion of my high school class. Again and again, conversation turned to a 1963 game in which our relatively small Catholic boys’ school defeated a potent cross-town rival public school for the first time in 27 years. That victory, I learned, had left more of an indelible mark on former students and the school than I had fully realized. The conversation did not so much focus on the game itself as on the sense of a milestone in the life of a high school and of students now mature adults.

My purpose, thus, is not to deprive teenagers of the enrichment that competitive athletics can offer.

I know that the opportunity to play on organized school teams keeps some young people engaged in the educational enterprise who might otherwise disconnect.

I know how much high school athletics can shape a rural community’s identity and morale.

Rather, my purpose is to nudge North Carolinians not to take the status quo in high school athletics as a given.

We have to weigh the time spent practicing and playing games against the time available for reading and studying. We have to weigh the costs of athletic facilities and equipment in light of the needs for up-to-date textbooks and science labs. We have to weigh the excitement of a playoff game against the risks of a long bus ride, especially along winding mountain roads. We have to weigh the quest for winning scores on Friday nights in light of our state’s quest for higher scores on academic tests.

Indeed, we have to pose questions left unasked and discuss among ourselves to what extent high school athletics, as now constituted, serves to advance or hinder educational progress. 

The New York Times devoted a “Room for Debate’’ segment to the issue of high school athletics that features pro-and-con opinions by Ripley, Bissinger and others. It would serve as a stimulus to community discussions. Read it here

Following the publication of her book examining the experiences of three American youngsters who spent a year in a school in another country, Ripley was invited to speak to the Emerging Issues Forum at N.C. State University. Here’s is a link to her presentation:

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.