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Enjoy sports, but maintain the proper perspective as well

Sep 24, 2013 - By Craig Blumenshine, Staff Writer

The lead story in October's Atlantic Monthly was one I didn't want to see when I opened my Kindle reader last Friday.

"How Sports are Ruining High School. The Real Reason U.S. Students are Falling Behind," the cover exclaimed, highlighting a story titled "The Case Against High School Sports," written by Amanda Ripley.

Early on in the piece, Ripley writes "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?"

My mind raced to what was simultaneously happening in Wyoming high school sports last Friday.

The Powell Panthers football team was in a school bus on the way to Torrington. Round trip: 1,026 miles. Riverton was hosting the two-day conference golf tournament.

This week, Riverton's volleyball team will head to Casper Thursday afternoon and get back to town Saturday night.

All over Wyoming, and all over the country, high school athletes and their schools spend an enormous amount of time, mental and physical capital, and money practicing (our swimmers are in the pool twice every day), traveling and competing. I wonder whether there is a math equation somewhere that can spew out the amount of time high school athletes spend outside of the classroom, especially here in Wyoming.

Ripley also talks about the effect a football season has on high schools in general. It's not just the players. The band, cheerleaders, dance team, pep rally organizers, homecoming coordinators, all are included in a, "kind of constant, low-level distraction (that) 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 dictates 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," Ripley says.

Add to the mix the new pressure of club sports, where elite high-school athletes are committing to programs that require significant out-of-state travel at the expense of participating even with their own high school sports programs, much less keeping high the commitment to high school academic success.

To be fair, Ripley notes that research generally suggests that sports do more good than harm for the players themselves. Sports, too, keep some kids in school.

But imagine an academic setting where the kind of enthusiasm (and money) thrown at high school sports was transferred to classroom efforts. Ripley's accounts of American high schools that have given up sports are insightful.

Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt, in his essay "An American Boy," had it right in 1900.

"When a man so far confuses ends and means as to think that fox-hunting, or polo, or foot-ball, or whatever else the sport may be, is to be itself taken as the end, instead of as the mere means of preparation to do work that counts when the time arises, when the occasion calls -- why, that man had better abandon sport altogether," Roosevelt wrote.

Let's make sure we hawkishly keep sports, especially high school sports, in proper perspective.

Have a great sports week. Go Big Red!

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