Is the emphasis on sports making kids less competitive?
By: Mike Nichols, Superior Telegram
Dennis Hernet committed the ultimate apostasy.
For years, he says, he argued that schools in the Two Rivers and Manitowoc area spent too much time focusing on interscholastic athletics.
“Talk about getting verbally abused for my beliefs,” he wrote to me after reading a column in which I noted that American students placed between 17th and 31st in comparison to kids in other countries on tests in reading, math and science.
Hernet was involved in the local Rotary Club’s student exchange program and often heard foreign students remark that, in addition to our shorter school days and lower quality classes, our schools — rather than communities — are the primary sponsors of sports teams.
When I talked to him on the phone, Hernet said he gets how sports instill discipline and leadership. He sees how competitive athletes are often successful in life. But, but said, “I still believe in my heart and mind that too much time is taken out of the classroom for athletics.”
He’s not the only one.
One Wisconsin high school teacher I spoke to the other day noted how some of the families in her school won’t take vacations during regular spring break because they don’t want their kids to miss sports practices that take place during the vacation week. So they pull their kids out of class before or after break and travel then instead. You can miss class, in other words, but don’t even think about missing practice.
She says she understands the role sports can play in motivating kids, keeping them active, forming social bonds. But she would like to see more balance with academics. It’s not just kids who are truant who are missing a lot of class time, after all. She believes the amount of time the average non-truant student actually spends in class is much less than the 180 days required by the state.
She happens to teach at a private school, so the criticism isn’t just a reflection on public education. It’s a reflection on American culture.
I write about Wisconsin, but this is an issue way bigger than us. Sam Osborne, who lives in West Branch, Iowa, loves athletics. He coached both high school and junior college football. But, he told me in an interview: “I think a lot of kids, if they go to school and if they are not a cheerleader or on the team, they’re a nobody. If they are not one of those people, they are just somebody walking down the hall.”
“As for sports being a character builder, I wonder how all of those folks that never even tried to make the team avoided prison,” he wrote satirically before I interviewed him. “This said by a kid who just loved athletics and thinks that it may have kept him from being a total character in biology.”
I admit I’ll still drive to the end of the earth — or at least the end of Missouri — just to watch my kid play soccer.
But even those of us who value sports are starting to wonder out loud if the overemphasis on how our kids are doing on the diamond helps fosters something even worse than mom and dad “screaming at the umpire that he is a jerk,” as Osborne puts it.
Yeah, our kids might be stronger and faster than most other kids in the world. But the data says they’re not smarter, and more and more people are seeing a connection.
Maybe, we think, the focus on sports will help our kids be more competitive when it comes to what really matters in life.
As it turns out, though, it might just be making them less so.
Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@wi.rr.com.