This year the Olympic Games came at a time that helps America shift focus away from the ugliest episode in our sports history: the Sandusky–Penn State Affair. The ugliness in this affair was the jaw-dropping degree that coaches and administrators right up to the top failed to report, and in effect covered up, egregious crimes primarily to preserve a sports reputation. This episode has moved off of our radar thanks to the Olympic Games.
But a bad aspect of local sports remains: the overemphasis on sports that makes it “job one” at most U.S. schools. In the 1980s when ten science student teachers graduated and went looking for jobs, those who could coach were hired first. Those who had superior credentials but did not coach—were often not hired and, being ambitious, took other jobs and were lost to the Kansas science classroom. The science teacher shortage changed that formula for awhile. But the hire-the-coach-first and ask-what-else-can-they-teach-later attitude is returning.
The dramatic cuts in state funding has placed small community high schools at risk. Declining enrolments make eventual consolidation inevitable. But communities rightfully cry that losing the school will doom their community’s future—a ghost town in the making.
But probe deeper. It is not the loss of the high school as a center of academics, but the loss of high school sports that brings the communities grief. That is what the community is attending during the sports seasons and long after they have any children in school. View the glass cases of athletic awards that line school hallways, metal icons to ball playing and track accomplishments dating back a century.
Any academic awards, if there are any, are usually temporarily posted on bulletin boards. Despite the professed academic goal of American schools, we rarely see awards celebrating those students who went into research, medicine, law, public service, music, theater, writing, etc.
American public schools and most universities have rightly been called a “jockocracy.”
We assume that the rest of the world operates the same way. That is wrong.
For five months this last spring I taught at a Chinese university that, similar to all of their schools, does not compete in high profile competition with any other university. For two days only, university undergraduates did have an internal sports competition. Most students played for fun and excitement. It was the School of Computing versus the School of Plant Protection.
But the whole focus of the public schools and universities in China remains academics. Outstanding student scholars were known and lauded. Yet these students had just as much pride in their university. Years later, just as many alumni return for class reunions.
China and many other countries can still select and train their best athletes for the Olympics without sports mania. So yes, as we witnessed in the Olympics, you can have academic schools and national sports without subverting the whole educational system to a jockocracy.
Some of our coaches assert: “Sports keeps some students from dropping out of school.”
But overseas schools keep students in school by celebrating academic achievement...a system that does not mislead larger numbers fo students into thinking they can become one of the few million-dollar professional baseball or basketball players. And we fail to weigh the cost of this bribery on the atmosphere of our schools—when buses for science field trips and debate are canceled, but not for sports.
But I am not going to win this debate. America will continue in its gladiatorial mindset.
So I tell my science student teachers, if they are lucky enough to get a job, to be sure to sign up to help take tickets at the ball games. It may be a bigger factor in their being re-hired than anything they do in the classroom.