Academics are more important than athletics

Only in this country are athletics given such high priority.  A class-action lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in New York says that black and Hispanic students have far less access to teams and sports than other races (“New York’s Playing Fields Aren’t Level, Students Say,” The New York Times, Jun. 29).

I don’t doubt this is true, but I question if it is a problem.  During the past two decades, New York City, like so many other cities across the country, has opened scores of small high schools in order to provide students with more personal support.  The unavoidable downside is that most sports require large numbers of students.

In an ideal educational world, there would be no conflict between academics and sports.  But in light of the dismal academic performance of so many public schools in New York City, I submit that academics should get priority.  I don’t doubt the benefits of team sports.  But they pale when compared with the benefits of a sound academic program.

Moreover, there is a difference between team and individual sports.  Small high schools are still able to field students, say, for tennis and golf.  I think these are far more likely to be pursued later in life than basketball and football.  But given the obsession with team sports that characterizes this country, I expect the plaintiffs to prevail.

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2 Replies to “Academics are more important than athletics”

  1. Several separate but related issues here.

    For many low-income students, athletic scholarships are the best chance to attend a four-year college. If a school system limits the high school students opportunities to participate in a competitive inter-school athletic program, there will necessarily be fewer opportunities for the low-income students to win athletic scholarships. (Of course, the whole concept of colleges awarding athletic scholarships can be/should be challenged, but that’s the world the low-income high school students live in.)

    Re the large-school/small-school issue — think the jury’s still out on this. Decent arguments to be made on both sides. I think the large-school approach has the stronger arguments, particularly for low-SES communities. The low-SES communities require a lot of specialized support services that, as a practical matter, can be provided much more efficiently in a large school. The ability to offer a competitive inter-school athletic program is a plus for the large-school approach, although I would give only modest weight to that factor.

    Re the desirability of offering a competitive inter-school athletic program generally (as opposed to merely the college-scholarship argument) — Drawing on my personal/anecdotal experience, it seems likely that participating in team sports contributes positively to a student’s personal growth and maturity in ways that academics do not. Here I’m focusing more on the average or even slightly-below-average athlete rather than the team superstar or captain. The mental/personality skills developed on high school sports teams are very much the same as the mental/personality skills required to succeed in personal and work environments in life. However, if the high school sports program emphasizes athletic success at the expense of academic effort (i.e., the star player whom the school allows to slide through with low or even failing grades), then the sports program can be doing more harm than good, for both the stars and for the rest of the students who conclude that academics are not important.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Most athletes are not held to the same standard as other students. This is particularly so in football and basketball because they are cash cows for colleges and universities. The reality is that these athletes are exploited. The hypocrisy surrounding their existence is a scandal. I know that team sports in high schools often are the only reason students don’t drop out. If I’m right, then let’s establish sports schools. They won’t get an academic education, but obviously they don’t need one.


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