Better ways of teaching teamwork

The case for tackle football in high school rests on its claim that it teaches leadership and teamwork (“The Risks of Turning Our Backs on Football,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 21).  It does, but the price paid is far too great.

I’m referring not only to concussions but to the joints as well.  The human body is not designed to sustain trauma, which is what characterizes tackle football.  There are other team sports that achieve the same goals but without the risks.  Water polo and lacrosse immediately come to mind.

The sheer violence of tackle football is also said to build character.  Using that argument, I suppose a case can be made for boxing, which by its very nature is built on inflicting as much pain as possible on its participants. But I’m opposed to boxing as well for the same reasons.

I’ve seen too many former players at the gym where I belong who can hardly walk because of arthritis.  Athletics are an important part of the curriculum.  But they’ve become an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end.  The assertion that athletics are responsible for this country’s exceptionalism is absurd.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

6 Replies to “Better ways of teaching teamwork”

  1. Agree that tackle football causes more harm than good and would love to see it replaced as the high-school favorite by soccer, basketball, or baseball/softball — much safer for the kids + can be played by girls as well.

    A high-school sports problem I hear about occasionally is that, with the increasing number of very large high schools (500+/year, 2,000+/school), it often becomes impossible for a student with average or only slightly above average athletic ability to make a sports team. Back in my day (early 1960s), my suburban high school had a freshman team, a JV team and a varsity team in the major competitive sports. Today, some — perhaps many — high schools are eliminating at least one of these teams — the freshman or the JV. The combined effect of larger schools and fewer teams/sport means only the very exceptional athletes will make the teams.

    In my opinion, the cost/benefit ratio for high school sports (other than football) makes high school sports a very worthwhile program. And, somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s most worthwhile for the student who is only an average or slightly above average athlete. The exceptionally talented athletes will play team sports somewhere along the line and gain whatever benefits are provided by doing so. But, if high schools offer relatively few team-sports slots relative to the number of students in the school, the less-talented athletes will not gain those benefits.

    And, of course, the benefits of playing on a team sport are much broader than just physical fitness. At a minimum, an extensive team sports program at a high school makes it much more likely that students from different social groups will mix together in the sports program, with corresponding social benefits for everyone.

    It’s possible that the increase in the number of girls sports teams in high schools has caused high schools’ sports facilities to become more crowded, with the result that the number of teams in each sport is reduced. In other words, the same number of students are on sports teams now as there were in the 1960s, but the increase in girls’ slots has resulted in a decrease in boys’ slots as well as a decrease in the number of slots generally in any particular sport. This seems likely — given that school systems will be very reluctant to eliminate a sport entirely (the parents of the exceptionally talented athletes in that sport would mobilize), the low-cost answer is to eliminate one or both of the lesser teams (freshman or JV) in a sport (the parents of the average-talented athletes will just shrug). I’d opt to spend the $ to increase facility availability and/or perhaps reduce the practice time per team while keeping all the teams.


  2. Labor Lawyer: What about intramural athletics? These provide the same benefits as varsity sports, albeit without the same prestige. Athletics are a worthy part of the high school curriculum, but they have overwhelmed the importance of academic and vocational curricula. Tackle football is by far the best example. But I question if the benefits outweigh the risks in the long run.


  3. Intramural athletics is a different experience. Way fewer hours/week than interscholastic athletics — arguably an advantage but overall a disadvantage if one believes that making a significant time commitment to an activity contributes to the student’s personal growth. Equally or more important, intramural athletics (at least in my experience) rarely requires a student to push him/herself very hard or to put him/herself out there doing something that his/her teammates depend on him/her doing well. Intramural athletics is mostly a goof-off after school once-a-week activity — not much different than a pick-up game. Also, most of the kids on any given intramural team will usually be at least casual friends independent of being on the intramural team. By contrast, with an interscholastic team, many/most of the kids on a team will not have had any relationship with the other kids independent of the team. So, intramural teams will not significantly increase interactions between students from different social groups.

    Not sure that “prestige” is what drives most high school athletes to participate on sports teams — football and basketball, probably. But, at least in my anecdotal experience, being on the other sports teams provides relatively little prestige — definitely not for the kids on the freshman or JV teams.

    Notwithstanding all of my above comments, if being on an interscholastic sports team requires an unreasonable time commitment, then the cost/benefit ratio probably flips. This seems to be an increasing problem, at least in some sports and in some geographic areas. In my day, being on an interscholastic team required M-F practices or games from say 3:30 to 5:00 each day during the season and sometimes until 6:00 for “away” games. Today, I’ve heard of teams regularly practicing for 2.5 hrs/day or longer during the season as well as weekend practices and out-of-season practices. The kids — other than perhaps the super athletes who are hoping for college sports scholarships — get no additional benefit from the extra time commitment.


  4. Labor Lawyer: There’s no question that intramural athletics can’t compare with varsity sports, but my point is that the former do provide much needed exercise, cooperation and bonding. Tackle football has made a mockery of a college education, since athletes in most prominent schools put in so few hours of study and take gut courses.


  5. Can’t access the WSJ article unless a subscriber. I honestly never heard future teamwork skills put forth as a reason for football. I know that in tenth grade a friends mother marched into the high school and while her son was in a coma from a tackle on Friday night, removed her son from the team. He recovered tho I don’t know if he had after effects in later life. He’s still alive and sane. You’d think parents wouldn’t let their sons play but that’s not how it is. The possible future riches if they are good is too great. People love the brutality of tackle football as well as the fanfare. I think I told you the Navy only let guys play tag football, where you could still get hurt, and guys did. The Europeans make fun of all the pads and the players’ size and all, but they love to watch it. Like you say, follow the money.


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