Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Schools abandoning sports, part II

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In Mark Hyman’s “Until It Hurts,” (already reviewed here), there’s an interesting bit of comment about parents and private interests taking over competitive sports when schools seemed less committed to them.

As I read it, I was thinking about all the discussions about statewide cuts in high school sports schedules and other pullbacks from varsity sports occurring during the current recession, in an environment where private interests like AAU and clubs are already siphoning away the elite athletes.

Except that Hyman was writing about the 1930s.

But it wasn’t the Depression and ensuring school sports cutbacks that gave private interests like American Legion Junior League baseball (born in 1926) and Pop Warner Football (born in 1929 as the Junior Football Conference) an opening to exploit. It was educators’ distaste for how competitive school sports was becoming. They decided it would be better to de-emphasize varsity sports in favor of intramurals — an idea I’ve proferred on a few occasions on this here blog.

Hyman approvingly quotes sports historian and coaching teacher Rainer Martens calling this decision a “gigantic blunder.”

“Ironically, educators suddenly found themselves no longer leading the movement they had begun. Instead of well-trained professionals guiding the sports programs of children, well-meaning but untrained volunteers assumed leadership roles. Sadly, educators were left on the sidelines shouting their unheeded warnings and criticisms,” writes Martens in his seminal (June 1978) book Joy and Sadness in Children’s Sports.

Of course, as schools got back on the sports train, overemphasis on winning was (and is) endemic there, too. But schools at least have to hold their players to academic and other eligibility standards, and limits on practices and games allow for more balanced lives and less potential for overuse injuries than hard-core club sports.

So do these cutbacks mean private organizations will get an even greater foothold on youth sports?

It’s tough to say right now — plenty of private organizations are noting declines in players or upturns in requests for financial assistance because of the current recession.

But the bigger, longer-term danger for schools that want to be taken seriously as a place for sports is that their cutbacks highlight how anyone wanting a scholarship or pro career should seek assistance elsewhere.

As a school cuts back music, would its top musicians not seek opportunities elsewhere? As a school cuts back theater, would not anyone dreaming of an actor career not seek opportunities elsewhere? If a school cuts back on academic programs, doesn’t it risk losing students to private schools or home-schooling?

I don’t have empirical numbers to prove that any of these trends hold. It just seems logical to me that if you’re already diffident about whether the high school soccer team is worth your time, especially when college coaches (as they do in Hyman’s book) make it clear all they scout is club soccer, it’s one more reason to leave varsity sports in favor of private programs.

Is this another gigantic blunder?

I don’t think so. As Hyman wrote, this cat already was let out of the bag in the 1930s. And anyone seeking elite play is already trained from an early age to look outside of school — to programs that, depending on their funding, might have better-trained coaches than the school can offer.

It might be time for schools to look at athletics as something more akin to intramurals — to find ways to get more students involved, both to help with the national obesity rate but also to give an outlet for kids who are never going to play travel ball. Again, we heed the words of Colorado football coach Dan Hawkins: “Go play intramurals, brother.”

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