Tahlequah Daily Press

October 3, 2013

Will the lights go out on Friday nights?

by Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— Many of us will travel Friday night to cheer on the local high school team. It’s a reoccurring ritual – one that’s been passed down over the generations -- where young men and women carry the pride, hope and dreams of a school and a community.

It’s been that way for more than a century. High school stars became hometown heroes, helping to shape a town’s character, reputation and identity. But is that long relationship headed toward a slow death?

There are worrisome signs. Some say the demise is inevitable.

The reasons are numerous. The cost of funding athletic programs is climbing at the same time schools are being forced to fire teachers. Crowds at sporting events are dwindling. Lawsuits stemming from concussions sustained on athletic fields are a growing concern.

Now comes a damaging article in The Atlantic, a magazine that’s developed a reputation for writing about important societal issues. It attempts to make the case that the emphasis on high school sports is, in part, responsible for America’s international mediocrity in educating students. Sports, not learning, have become the central mission of American high school, author Amanda Ripley observes.

Andreas Schleicher, a German educator cited by The Atlantic, said the most engaging environment students can be offered is one of cognitive challenge combined with individualized support. “If you offer boring and poor math instruction and try to compensate that with interesting sports activities, you may get students interested in sports but I doubt it will do much good to their engagement with school,” he said.

Certainly, it is agonizing and frustrating to see extremely gifted high school athletes, ones that have demonstrated they can play for the best college teams in the country, barely make it through high school and then fail to have the minimal test scores necessary to qualify for a scholarship.  But it seems unfair to issue such a sweeping indictment of high school sports and then link it to academic achievement by the entire student body. There are many student-athletes who have shown the ability to exceed both on the field and in the classroom, just as there as those who have failed.

Dr. Stephen Daeschner, a retired school superintendent, said attempting to connect America’s rich appetite for sports with the academic success of its public schools and how the country fares on worldwide achievement tests is like comparing “apples, oranges and grapes.” What critics should be observing is a community’s respect for education, said Daeschner, who led the 110,00-student school system in Louisville, Ky., for 14 years.

While some schools may – and oftentimes do – overemphasize sports at the expense of education, one does not need to be pitted against the other. Both can fail, each can excel.

It has been his experience, Daeschner said, that student-athletes generally out-perform regular school students. Besides that, those involved in extracurricular activities in many cases become the leaders that schools and students can coalesce around. “Students will always need peer heroes in sports and academic achievement,” he said. “We adults have a great say in who the school recognizes and celebrates.”

Budgeting pressures are real – choices have to be made – and they are being forced on school administrators across the country. Nevertheless, responsible decisions are being reached, even if some are painful.

Daeschner, like many others, feels strongly that academics and athletics should play a complementary role, not an adversarial one.

“I have never seen a time when students are more engaged and busy than today’s students,” he said. “I think high school sports play an important role in today’s high school.”

It would be tragic if one day those Friday Night Lights were permanently turned off and a community’s student-athletes disappeared into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.