Yesterday's Wall Street Journal had a story called "Friday Night Lights (Out)." A small school district in Texas, on the verge of bankruptcy and in trouble with the state for low academic performance, has decided to cut its high school sports program to free up cash. Among the things the cash has to go for? A better science lab, as required by state standards.
High school sports are obviously a big deal in Texas (especially football). So the idea of cutting sports to support academics is novel, to say the least. In the case of this little town (Premont, about 150 miles south of San Antonio), the sports teams hadn't exactly been powerhouses. It's not like the town of Allen, near Dallas, which is opening a new $60 million stadium. (One wonders how many science labs in small districts could be created for the price of that monument to those Friday Night Lights). Still, win or lose, as the article notes, high school sports competitions are often the glue that holds a community together.
But, of course, one could come up with many things to hold a community together. Volunteer projects. Variety shows. I read multiple times the scene in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books when, as a high school student, she recites a long historical oratory on a night in which the whole town has gathered in the school house. The article quotes someone from the PTA lamenting that education should be about the whole child (including physical fitness). Which is true. But with athletics, I've been pondering, lately, if our high school emphasis on team sports is part of our problem with an out-of-shape populace. To be athletic as a child is to be into team sports. That is the kind of athleticism that is valued. So I figured I was never athletic. But in my 20s, I started running -- an individual sport you can do your whole life, with little equipment. I'm not fast, but I turn out to have a fair bit of endurance. I finished the Big Sur Marathon in April 2010 and was in good enough shape afterwards to deal with an ER trip for my kid the next morning (long story) and to go hiking the next afternoon. I now run 5 days a week, and lift weights most days, something I'm guessing the vast majority of former high school athletes no longer do. If the goal is the whole child, emphasizing sports that the vast majority of people will no longer do after school -- like football -- doesn't seem to be the way to go.
That said, I wish this town didn't have to cut anything. I do wish, though, that all districts would go through the hard process of figuring out whether their budgets match up with what their priorities should be. The top priority should be producing students who can be good citizens and support themselves in the modern economy. Most likely, a good science program is a better bet than a formal sports program. Especially when you can send the kids outside to run for 30 minutes a day instead.