The High Costs of High School Sports

Let’s address an elephant in the room. Many teachers are unhappy with the inordinate amount of attention and funding school sports get when they lack resources in the classroom.

I want to enlighten you on frustrations I personally have with Oklahoma education — sports. It isn’t that I hate sports. I played and played well, but as an educator, I saw the lavish expenditures directed to the sports programs, which neither benefit all students nor have a statistically meaningful impact on most of their lives and future success. Given that, you really have to ask questions about why the Science program is underfunded and why kids graduate from English who “still cain’t read good.”

You’d think that given the nature of the crisis, sports would have suffered more in the way of cutbacks. In many places, they have, but in much of the state, however, the programs continue to grow as other cuts are made in other core areas. The culture is what it is and many people have their greatest memories on the field, so they expect the schools to participate, and if they participate, they better win. For this reason, coaches have far more power to demand what they “need” than an objective assessment of the programs would allow. Consider the price tag one a football stadium being built and maintained each year, along with a gymnasium, a baseball field, a softball field, not to mention the buses and all travel requirements, hiring referees, and even insurance when at a typical school maybe a third of the kids will ever get participate in that program.

On the subject of costs of school sports, we have to talk about coaches. I want to be fair here, some are the best teachers in the world are coaches. The teacher who inspired me to go into education was a coach. He rode his bike to work every morning, pushed us harder than any of the other teachers, and was completely unforgettable in a good way. But just as likely as those paragons, are the many who entered education attempting to fulfill their failed aspirations of sports stardom by becoming a History teacher as their route back into sports… which is why so many kids suck at History. Because of this ability to fill two roles, someone who can coach is a premium over a dedicated classroom teacher. Anyone who is honest with themselves will accept that isn’t a strategy for academic success.

And this is all before stipends. Much of our salary shortfalls go into paying the additional pay a teacher receives if they are a coach. It amounts to a fairly significant pay raise to be a coach/teacher. Multiply that by the ever-growing number of coaches and you start to see where the funds are being channeled. I really want to stress that some of the Coach-Teachers are the best teachers I have ever known, but far too many simply suck as educators. That’s because, to them, this school, this field, these kids, aren’t their students. They aren’t future engineers, professors, soldiers, business leaders, or citizens who need a good education; they are just a ticket to their next coaching position at a bigger school, maybe college ball where they no longer have to teach, or maybe even the pros. It is not about the classroom for far too many coaches, and many Oklahoma educators (who don’t coach) are fed up with the inequities.

Something necessary to point out — some school sports programs are profitable. There are some schools with programs meaningful enough to the community that the revenue from ticket sales is enough to pay for part of the sports programs. In some places, it works, but most of the state, particularly small towns where they haven’t seen a state championship run since the Reagan administration, that’s hard to see working. It’s harder still to see that the few sports that make money from ticket sales and concessions, such as football and basketball, justify the spending for the programs that don’t. Every town is different, but many are caught in a game of athletic Keeping up with the Joneses, and they’re losing it.

This is where the strategy of education comes. What is the goal of Oklahoma Education? If it is producing a mountain of failed athletes who have no understanding of higher order Math, no critical-thinking skills, a failure to contextualize historical events to modern day concerns, an inability to perform technical communication, no sense of civic responsibility, and who think Science is the art of making colorful slime out of glue and Borax, then Oklahoma is doing fantastic. If Oklahoma actually wants to invest in its future survival, it’s going to need to give kids the actual skills that businesses need. This isn’t asking for a replacement for technical schools or colleges. Businesses want to invest in Oklahoma’s resource wealth, but they can’t find enough people to employ that can learn to do that job. But what solutions are we bringing to the table for the budget crisis? About a sixth of the state’s school districts went to four-day weeks instead of having the really hard conversation about where the money can be found within their own budgets.

To make my point clearer, an example can be found for in what one Texas School did to survive its own crisis.

Last year in Texas, whose small towns are the spiritual home of high-school football and the inspiration for Friday Night Lights, the superintendent brought in to rescue one tiny rural school district did something insanely rational. In the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down Premont Independent School District for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Ernest Singleton suspended all sports—including football.

To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs, which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and baseball teams each year.

Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.

“I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms,” says Singleton, who has spent 15 years as a principal and helped turn around other struggling schools. “This was the worst I’ve seen in my career. The kids were in control. The language was filthy. The teachers were not prepared.” By suspending sports, Singleton realized, he could save $150,000 in one year. A third of this amount was being paid to teachers as coaching stipends, on top of the smaller costs: $27,000 for athletic supplies, $15,000 for insurance, $13,000 for referees, $12,000 for bus drivers. “There are so many things people don’t think about when they think of sports,” Singleton told me. Still, he steeled himself for the town’s reaction. “I knew the minute I announced it, it was going to be like the world had caved in on us.”

The Case Against High-School Sports

I know that a lot of people love what they once had. They still wear that ring and tell the world how high school sports made them who they are today. I’ve seen that personally. We had a state championship team from back in 1960’s which went on to create two army generals, several doctors, and a host of other high achievers. This was in a school that graduated some thirty kids a year back then, which makes the potency of that class remarkable. It was clear that being part of that team made many of them who they were. But it isn’t the 1960s anymore when taxpayers didn’t need to spend so much per student on sports. Given the inflation in facilities, labor costs, insurance, equipment, and any number of other variables, we no longer live in a time when it makes economic sense for most schools. No other country in the world spends on sports in the way that even poor states like Oklahoma does, and we’re beginning to see how that is affecting our long-term strategies for success. Spending for it has gone beyond any possible investment value and now exists in a cannibalistic relationship with the Math, English, History, and woe unto thine humble arts programs.

Oklahoma has simply taken the love of sports too far, or at the very least no longer realize that the game has changed, fiscally speaking. On a district level, we need to begin having those conversations – not just on cutting a few positions, but if entire programs need to go. In a cash-strapped reality, sports are a luxury; English, History, Math, and Science are the necessities. This is especially true for schools where major outlays in sports prevent more prudent decisions from happening.

Look, I love school sports as a concept. I played all the way, and it may have even helped me personally. Of course, a lot more of that I credit to the Marines, where many of my boot camp buddies never stood under Friday night lights. I learned more about pushing myself, nutrition, physical fitness, and overcoming hardship in one week of boot camp than seven years of academic athletics. It was also in the Marines, during my first deployment to Iraq, that I realized just how little I understood about the world. That was due to another coach, one whose job was to teach us about the world and its history but spent most class periods talking about “the game”, whichever game that was. Frankly, I could have really used an understanding of Arab culture, political realities of the Middle East, and the cultural divide between the West and the Islamic faith far more than talking about one of my classmate’s missed lay-ups. Given that it was 2003, two years after 9/11 and now that we were involved in our second simultaneous Middle Eastern war, it’s actually pretty messed up he allowed himself to fail. I took care of that on my gap on my own, but that night in Iraq I no longer worshipped my coaches as being above reproach.

That’s the thing I can’t get past. I don’t think coaches suck. It’s that you never know what you’re getting. They really aren’t average; they are either rock stars or rocks. In a very important way, two coaches inspired me to become an educator, one who had a style in his classroom that inspires me to this day, and one who made me see the flaws and dangers in putting this much responsibility on the shoulders of teachers who have more incentive to be on the field than in the classroom. What this signifies isn’t anything about coaches themselves, just that coaches aren’t held to the same standards. Rockstar coaches are allowed to shine, but rocks are still allowed to sink the ship. That needs to change.


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