In the long shadow of this week’s Super Bowl, high-school football drew some unflattering attention, including headlines such as “As the Super Bowl Approaches, Is High School Football Dying a Slow Death?” (the Guardian) and “Rams’ Run to 2019 Super Bowl Reveals Cracks in Football from High School to the NFL” (Forbes).
Such stories are hardly surprising. In recent years, high-school sports have had a tough go of it. Football’s concussion problem has spawned headlines such as CBS’s “Young Athletes Abandon Football as Concussions Rock High School Teams.” But it’s not just football. The indefensible actions of some pro athletes, especially with regards to domestic violence and sexual misconduct, have colored views of sporting culture more generally. Meanwhile, for many progressives, sports are seen as celebrating problematic notions of competition, toxic masculinity, and gender segregation.
Indeed, school sports have served as a convenient punching bag for advocates and academics who tend to regard athletics as a cultural backwater. Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the “social change” organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, has made “The Case against High-School Sports” in The Atlantic, blaming sports for mediocre U.S. performance on international tests. And Brookings Institution education scholar Mike Hansen has lamented that sports are “distracting us from our schools’ main goals.”
The manifold benefits of school sports can too readily get lost, especially the crucial role that athletics can play in supporting academic success and building character. Given all the negative attention, it might surprise you to learn that participation in high-school sports has actually risen steadily over the past four decades. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that participation in high school athletics has risen from 40 percent of high schoolers in 1980 to 52 percent in 2015.
Given the pervasive gloom and hand-wringing, the question arises: Why is participation in sports growing? Well, for one thing, a look at some of the most widely cited scholarly studies on high school sports tells a story very different from the popular narrative of violence and misbehavior.
Despite assertions that sports distract from academics, there’s evidence that they can just as readily complement the scholastic mission of schools. A widely cited 2003 study by Oxford University’s Herbert Marsh and the University of Sydney’s Sabina Kleitman in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology reported, using nationally representative longitudinal data, that participating in high-school sports had a positive effect on academics in high school and college. Students who played high-school sports got better grades, selected more challenging courses, had higher educational and occupational aspirations, were more likely to enroll in college, and had higher levels of educational attainment. What’s more, these results held up across socioeconomic status, gender, race, and ability.
A decade ago, in the Economics of Education Review, Mathematica’s Stephen Lipscomb used a fixed-effects strategy to test whether participating in high-school sports affected academic performance. He found that sports participation associated with a 2 percent increase in math and science test scores and a 5 percent increase in bachelor’s-degree attainment expectations. Other scholarship has reported that participating in high-school sports significantly reduces a student’s likelihood of dropping out of high school and, for young women, that it is associated with higher odds of college completion.
None of this is remotely new. Three decades ago, Alyce Holland and Thomas Andre published an influential review of the research on high-school extracurricular participation in the American Educational Research Journal, reporting that participation in sports was associated with higher self-esteem and feelings of control over one’s life. In a finding that won’t surprise many who’ve participated in sports, they found that athletics participation was also correlated with improved race relations and heightened young-adult involvement in political and social activities. Educators and reformers who are seeking ways to promote values such as self-control, responsibility, and good citizenship should keep in mind that schools already house programs with a track record of doing just that.
Sports also provide the opportunity for young athletes to interact with an adult role model in a shared endeavor outside of the home. Especially given that more than a third of school-age children live in single-parent households, sports afford athletes a chance to forge relationships that they might otherwise lack. This can be especially pivotal for young men who don’t have a father or other male authority figure in the home.
The point is not to make outsize claims about the restorative powers of school sports. These studies all have methodological limitations, and we should not treat the results as gospel. Meanwhile, there are real physical risks in some sports, some of the benefits are due to self-selection, some poorly run sports programs do breed destructive behavior, and there are times and places when school sports can clash with education’s academic mission.
None of these cautions, however, should excuse the pooh-poohing of high-school sports by zealots, the dismissal of sports by reformers, and the distortions by media outlets seeking salacious tales of sports’ ill effects. School reformers are now reconsidering their all-consuming fascination with reading and math scores and expressing new interest in social and emotional learning, citizenship, and character. That makes this a propitious time to remember all that sports can offer. After all, the skills that sports aspire to teach — perseverance, self-discipline, leadership, and being good at teamwork — are the very ones that help produce successful graduates and responsible citizens.
Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Amy Cummings is a research associate at AEI.