Can You Imagine Schools Without Sports?

Americans are known throughout the world for being competitive people. We like to win Olympic medals, build the biggest houses, and maintain a superior military force. We have the most human and natural resources any nation has ever known. But do we have the best schools?  

Perhaps we have the very best at the top, but we also have too many schools that fail to provide and foster academic opportunities.  

Many people, including Amanda Ripley writing in The Atlantic magazine, are out to figure out why our schools and students–on average–lag behind other nations less prosperous than ours. Ripley’s latest argument piqued my interest–could sports be the primary reason many of our schools are mediocre compared to schools in less prosperous nations?


Sports are a bigger deal here than anywhere else, yet few people seem willing to critique our collective obsession with Friday night lights, homecoming basketball games, and training year round for various activities. Ruth, one of my foreign students who hails from Rwanda, said she couldn’t believe how important sports were to Americans upon arriving in the country.  

Could our focus on sports detract us from better academic options and outcomes? Or are sports so integral to our school communities that we couldn’t function with them?  

Ripley cites a school district in Premont, Texas–perhaps the most crazed football state in the nation–that cancelled its sports programs in 2012 in order to save the school. The cost of funding the teams was simply too high. Some students were outraged, and others transferred to neighboring school districts.  So what happened?

The first fall without a football program, 80% of the students passed their classes, compared to 50% the year before. 160 parents showed up at parent-teacher conferences, compared to 6 the previous fall. The money saved went to raises for teachers. As the district’s budget became balanced, sports are gradually being reintroduced, but the former football coach says the culture shift has been striking–in a good way. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” he said, “compared to 2 percent before.”

Talking with students in my English III class last week, even some athletes admitted that sports may be overemphasized. Yet Cory, a junior on the baseball team, made the astute point that for him and many others, sports motivate many students to do better in school and keep grades up. And then there’s the way sports can bring people together.

Think about how community traditions, support, and participation merge during a typical football game.  Take our homecoming football game, for instance. The band, cheerleading squad, dance team, and alumni all participated in the event. The softball and baseball teams, I believe, manned the concession stand and ticket booth. Our football team played and won the game, of course.  So many people are able to come together, helping create school spirit and culture.  

As for me, I had a wonderful experience playing high school football and baseball, and some of my best friends today were members of the 1998 Crimson Tide gridiron team in Concord, New Hampshire. I had tough coaches who instilled life lessons.  I’m also fortunate to have had well-educated parents who knew that doing well in school–not being a football or baseball star–would be the best ticket to college.

During the past ten years as a teacher, I’ve interacted with far too many students who struggle in the classroom, but spend hours upon hours at practice, instead of going to tutoring, reading, or otherwise being involved in something more academically-oriented.  Many students talk about the importance of doing well in school, but their actions speak louder than their words.  

In many cases, it’s not the students’ fault they value their athletic experiences so highly–they are reflecting our societal values.  Yet I can’t help but wonder how much stronger our schools might be if all the money, time, and energy poured into sports–on all levels– was funneled in other directions.

Are sports overemphasized in your communities?  Can you imagine school without sports?  


  1. Paul, I too played high school football and wouldn’t give anything for what that meant to me as a young man. During my middle school years I was failing not only in school, but in life. I had little direction and was heading nowhere fast. I got involved with football as a freshman and found myself feeling important. I wanted to please my coaches and not let my teammates down. In order to play football I had to of course do well in school….and I did.
    I eventually went on to become a coach myself. Again, a great experience and opportunity to stress the importance of education and using grades and sports to motivate young ment to try hard in school.
    Unfortuantely I have also seen a very ugly side of sports. I have seen coaches use kids to win, help them find loop holes in the educational and athletic systems, cheat and change grades.
    I do think sports still can be and are in most cases a positive role in our schools adn communities. Sports are such a huge part of our culture, like it or not. I am not opposed to club sports, but many kids would miss out due to costs, transportation and many other issues.
    I think we could have the best of both the worlds. There are many schools that have both tremendous academics and athletics. I realize there is a ton of money thrown at athletic programs, but much of that comes from boosters and fundraising.
    It would be nice if someone was out there selling cookies and playing bingo for academic reasons though.

  2. The club model is one that should be utilized more in the US, but what a massive overhaul of the infrastructure!
    Remind me–are you at an international school?

  3. Delicate is right. In my opinion, I’d love to see some of our urban high schools cancel sports programs and pilot a new model. It’d be massively opposed, but it seems like a legitimate reform possibility.
    Is the early start time really linked to sports? Never thought about that.

  4. Robin,
    I’m guessing the stigma associated with not being into sports is less than it used to? It seems like most communities offer more extracurricular tailored to both genders nowadays. But maybe I’m wrong.
    I think we overvalue lessons learned in sports–after all, it takes a great coach, just as it takes a great teacher, to have that positive impact on the youth.

  5. In German schools there are no sports. But if you go out on the trail on any given Sunday, you would think the entire population was semi-pro. (running, biking, climbing, etc)

    Kids are really active. They start them in Kindergarten with gymnastics at local sports clubs. Each community has them. You have tennis clubs, soccer clubs, basketball clubs, hockey, ice skating, track, climbing, cycling, …. The list goes on and on. The clubs that are team sport oriented will compete against each other. Kids across the community in differing schools might be in the same club.

    Sport is so important here, but the focus is on the sport, not on it being a part of school.

    At International Schools there are sports as many are modeled off of the American system.

  6. It’s difficult to gauge how important is “too important.” Are sports “too important” ? Beyond the students in the schools, sports programs have all sorts of positive side-effects to a community. For example, in Michigan, where school-of-choice is prevalent, a successful sports program can be fantastic marketing to lure young or disillusioned families who are looking for a new district.

    You’re question is perfectly worded. Forget whether sports are helpful or harmful for a second. Can we even imagine schools in the US completely devoid of sports programs? The marriage of sports to schools is such a fundamental norm in our culture. Especially in small towns, where the community uses sports as such an intense rallying mechanism that the thought of eliminating all of that would be enough to make the conversation completely unmanageable.

    However, it doesn’t mean that sports are untouchable. It just means that this is a very, very delicate issue. On one side, sports are making important decisions that they have no business making. Without sports, I’m not sure anyone thinks to try to teach teenagers math at 7:35 am. A school day starting at 10 am makes so much more sense, but we can’t get our practices all in if we aren’t ending the day until suppertime.

    On the other hand, there is a legitimate group of students in many schools for whom sports are the reason they are passing their classes and coming to school regularly. Through that lens, sports are a non-negotiable. They stay!

    Seems like in some districts, losing sports might be the right move, but the leaders would have to have every possible group of stakeholders on board and supportive. Most communities support sports, so, the leadership would need to rally that support around something else (hopefully the leadership team’s decision to cut the sports programs).

  7. I also think it’s probably got a lot to do with access to safe, clean spaces to walk, run, bike or kick around a soccer ball with other kids. I see a lot of suburban parents spending their lives ferrying their children to planned events, but how often (?) do kids just get together for their own games without it being super-structure and competitive?

    Even owning a pair of ice skates or roller-blades or a tennis racquet allows a kid to do these things on their own…if there is access to a free or low-cost place to use them. In NYC, there are several ice skating rinks and you can rent ice skates for a fairly low cost. But many kids don’t know how to skate.

  8. It’s true sports have a lot to do with identity, having played a huge role in my own development. I wonder what restructuring would need to occur to continue giving young people the chance to participate in sports without having all the resources and focus occuring at schools. From what I’ve read and heard, it sounds like many European countries have more of an after-school club scene for athletics.

  9. Your post does bring in a lot of questions. I can’t answer about what my community does; my child is only 8 so I haven’t seen what the older grade sport culture is like yet. But it does worry me, because my son is not remotely into team sports, and I hope the stigma assoc. with not being into sports, as a boy, doesn’t hurt him later. He likes his free time in the afternoon and does things that interest him more, like science-related activities outside, and his current obsession, the universe, checking out every documentary Netflix and Amazon streaming have to offer. Have to assume the extra time, allowing kids to have free time to pursue other interests, and when older, do their homework and focus more on school work, will certainly raise the academics. I think there are other ways to bring the community together. and to learn to be a “team player” besides team sports.

  10. This post raises a lot of questions.

    One of the issues is different learning styles — for some people, athletic participation (i.e. action, not passive learning sitting in a classroom) is a way of learning that makes a lot more sense to them. It’s fun. It’s competitive but you can also be part of a team, not a feeling one finds easily in other activities at school necessarily. It’s nice to have an identity beyond being a student (and maybe an average or below-average one.) Having been coached athletically much later in life (my mid 30s) I really enjoyed the experience and can see its appeal.

    I don’t see the U.S. (versus France or the UK, for example) being focused on becoming an intellectual, a nerd. Everyone loves, and can identify with, being a jock or having played some of the same sports. Does that justify this obsession with sports? No.

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