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This post is a duplicate of the article in the  AASA – August 2015 School Administrator Magazine.  

The entire issue (here) is dedicated to topics related to high school sports.

A superintendent’s case for a forward-thinking approach to interscholastic athletics addressing safety, cost and the balance with academics

His first reported concussion happened in youth soccer. His second came in high school football. A possible third head injury may have happened in pro football training camp. But when a rookie 24-year-old linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers, Chris Borland, decided to retire from the NFL in March, not due to injury but rather to prevent injury, the sports world uttered a collective gasp.

Parents and players have taken notice of Borland’s story and the growth in concussion research. In my 7,500-student district, I recently received an e-mail from a parent quoting Mike Ditka, an NFL Hall of Famer and legendary Chicago Bears head coach and tight end. While that may have surprised me, the provocative words he echoed did not: “If I had a young son today, I wouldn’t let him play football.”

More than ever, superintendents are being drawn into controversies around interscholastic sports. In just the past few months, news media have reported on a superintendent who resigned following the contentious termination of a varsity basketball coach; several superintendents drawn into student-athlete disciplinary cases over alleged hazing; a superintendent challenged by her community after she disciplined a football coach for an offensive sideline tirade; a superintendent who cancelled games against another school over the rival team’s “Redskins” nickname in support of his own school’s Native American population; and several superintendents caught in the middle of school board budget debates around financial support for school athletics.

Sports and schools have been interconnected for generations. Yet the rising tide of serious challenges is raising new questions about the sustainability of interscholastic sports programs. These deal with student-athlete health risks, competitive pressures from a social media-fueled public and tough questioning around the educational value of school-based programs when public revenues are stressed. Jointly, or in isolation, these pressures could lead to a scaling back, if not disappearance, of some school sports in the coming years.

Reigning Romanticism

To an outside observer, it seems as if high school sports never have been more popular. Varsity sports are big business, with communities investing in football and basketball facilities and major sports news outlets like Bleacher Report and ESPN giving high school athletics expansive coverage.

Beyond widespread media attention, several other factors support the notion that school sports will continue to thrive. Communities have a rich history of school sports, and nostalgia runs deep in our schools, notably in smaller communities whose sole identity these days may be tied to their public schools.

Adults often romanticize their own school sports experiences — from cheering on the football team to scoring the winning goal in a soccer match or a buzzer beater in basketball. Superintendents recognize the considerable pride that comes to a school and a community when a sports team wins a regional or state championship. Movies such as Hoosiers and Rudy continue to inspire us.

And unlike in other countries, where sports facilities used by pre-collegiate students typically are not located on a school campus, gymnasiums in North America generally are an integral part of school campuses. Given the physical connection, it makes logical sense that sports such as basketball, volleyball and wrestling will continue to remain within the school domain.

Three Pressures

The challenges I see school system leaders confronting in interscholastic sports fall into three categories.

Athlete safety. Coaches and school leaders always will assert that students’ safety comes first in scholastic sports participation. But grim evidence from expanding medical research on the long-term effects of sports-related concussions indicates that brain trauma can cause permanent cognitive impairment, memory loss, depression, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to erratic behavior and suicide.

We’re learning that it’s not just the bone-crunching body hits in football that cause injury. Successive sub-concussive blows, even in sports such as soccer, rugby, lacrosse and ice hockey, can cause as much or more brain damage. The recovery time can be longer for children and adolescents. Notably, the majority of injuries occur during practices, not in interscholastic competition. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics indicated 58 percent of reported concussions in high school football occurred in practice sessions.

Most chilling, however, is the “culture of resistance” among players to self-report concussion symptoms. According to the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, “High school athletes and those with scholarship possibilities especially will try to convince parents and coaches that they feel fine, in order to resume play.”

Other serious student safety challenges include physical harassment, sexual abuse and the ugly ritual of team hazing. These issues are forcing superintendents, like one last fall at a high school in New Jersey, to take serious measures — in that case, cancelling the school’s varsity football season in response to a hazing incident. Community and public reaction to the cancellation was mixed and only proves to demonstrate how difficult it will be to make changes to the nation’s most popular sport.

Blurring lines between school and community sports. Beyond health and safety concerns, sports themselves are changing. Basketball, volleyball and soccer, for instance, used to be school-based sports primarily. Now, it seems as if the school season is just preparing young athletes for the extended club season. The Amateur Athletics Union basketball circuits across the continent have youngsters playing dozens of games, even sometimes more than 100, during the “off season.” Colleges use the AAU programs as the go-to source for recruiting athletes, meaning parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.

Coaching and profit motives in some community programs have professionalized youth sports and raised questions about where school-based sports fit into this new world. In the community, athletes can freely move between programs in a “free agent” environment, and coaches and sports programs can be talent collectors, while public schools hold to academic and residential eligibility rules that limit movement.

High school sports once were neatly organized into seasons that more or less matched the terms of the school year. Students could run cross country in the fall, play basketball in the winter and participate in baseball or softball in the spring. Over the last couple of decades, youngsters have been pushed into a 12-month calendar. This poses a challenge for schools that try to encourage students to play multiple sports at the same time non-school-based sports programs are stressing specialization.

The place of sports in school. One historical advantage for school sports over those in the community has been the cost of participation. In most school districts, there is no pay-to-play measure. This has changed in recent years. As school district budgets tighten, superintendents and school boards are faced with choosing whether to prioritize athletics or core classroom services.

We also are seeing the need to redirect revenue sources once targeted for athletics, such as those generated by campus vending machines and gym rental use, to support the overall operating district budget. I am faced regularly with turning down requests to financially support school sports in my district as teams rely on user fees and parent fundraising more than ever to cover costs.

While competitive sports in secondary schools engage small numbers of participants, we realize we need to find ways for all students to be active to support their physical and academic health. Given the alarming rate of youth obesity, there are concerted efforts to focus on sports that promote inclusive participation and lifelong fitness. Classes in yoga, dance and personal fitness are becoming more common in high schools and our physical education classes have decreased their attention to competitive sports while increasing their focus on lifelong fitness.

Finally, the increased emphasis on global academic competition in education challenges the place of high school sports in the future. When our nations are competing with Finland and Singapore on the international stage and the stakes for our students are rising, competitive school sports can be seen as a distraction. Do we want our great math teachers spending their nights preparing lessons or coaching basketball? (OK, the answer is probably both!) As the expectations ratchet up for educators in the classroom, it is harder to see where commitments to competitive athletics fit into the new definition of a teacher.

The Way Forward

As a school principal recently said to me, “If we were starting schools from scratch, do you really think we would include competitive sports when the community does them so well?”

This conversation really challenges me. I have coached varsity-level sports, I’ve been president of the High School Basketball Association, and I’ve seen the amazing and continuous benefits of school sports on the lives of young people. I would far rather be the superintendent cheering on the championship team than overseeing the demise of these programs — which is precisely why we need to take a serious look at competitive sports in schools moving forward.

At their core, our schools are about nurturing the brain. As I wrote in my response to the parent’s e-mail with his warning from “Iron Mike,” we need to play close attention to the evolving science of brain injury and take student safety seriously. But let’s evolve our sports rather than eliminate them.

Football needs to be different because we know better than to continue to allow head contact in the game. The heads-up tackling initiative is a step forward. Helmet-mounted impact sensors may be another. Within the next few years, concussion management training for coaches and conservative “return to play” guidelines must be standard protocol.

We need to look at whether some sports are managed better in the community and, if so, perhaps we should stop offering them in schools. In British Columbia, we offer 17 different sports for boys and girls through our schools. Working with a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit groups, all those involved in sports need to jointly support high school student-athletes and not be in perpetual competition with one another.

For me, hearing community members tell “Friday Night Lights” tales of the past offers wonderful nostalgia and history, but it is not instructive about where we need to go next. Superintendents and other forward-looking system leaders must begin to envision competitive school sports for 2035, not 1955. The challenges individually are not insurmountable, but collectively they are a daunting set of factors. While I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while; looking 20 years out, like many other aspects of schooling, they may have to evolve.

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girls sports

So, having outlined some reasons why school sports may endure in my last post, there are also some realities that lead one to see that there are a number of factors working against school sports right now.

In no particular order, here are some of the challenges that school sports face going forward:

The discussion around concussions and brain injuries seems to be growing all the time. And quickly, the conversations often move to sports that have or are perceived to have high levels of head injuries.  Two of these sports are two of the most popular in high school – football and rugby.  And to be very fair, both sports are trying to get out in front of the issue and make their games safer.  Examples include the Safe Contact Program in Canada that deals with heads-up tackling.   The issue of safety is not going away, and there are definitely voices that question whether schools should be active in sports that can be seen to be dangerous.

We have continued to see a decline in teacher coaches in schools.  Unlike, our American counterparts, high school coaching is almost exclusively a volunteer experience (there are some Independent Schools that offer a stipend).  And over time, there has been a shift from school coaches to community coaches.  I have seem some local data that shows the majority of coaches in almost all schools are non-teacher coaches.  There is a commonly told story that teacher anger at government and new teachers without the same values as those of previous generations are the culprits.  The story seems far more complicated and the real stories don’t make up these myths.  This issue seems part of larger shifts in society that see teachers putting on their parenting hats quickly after school and leaving to coach their own children who are now playing more sports and younger ages than ever before.  Teachers are also far more likely to be working as tutors or otherwise busy after school.

Also on the topic of coaching, we have moved from volunteers to professional coaches throughout youth sports. Soccer and hockey clubs no longer rely just on willing moms and dads as coaches but have technical directors to lead their clubs.  While some coaches are trained and certified in schools the vast majority are willing volunteers looking to connect with kids and support them knowing the power of sports to help connect young people to school and positive peer groups.  Somehow these types of coaches are not enough anymore as expertise is now becoming expected in both the community and in schools.

One of the advantages of school sports over community sports has been cost.  School sports have been far cheaper alternatives than those in the community.  This has been changing.  Now school sports are reflective of the total cost of the offerings, and often can be several hundred dollars for a season to cover referee, tournament and other charges.   While there are still some very inexpensive sports to run in schools, this has been changing.  There are also not the same sources of revenue to support school sports – traditionally some gym rental revenue, or vending machine revenue or monies from other sources could help support school sports – as budgets have got tighter these sources have disappeared.  Now, schools, like the community, are having to find ways to ensure all young people have access to sports.  And the cost issue does not seem to be going away.

Did you know there are 17 school sports in British Columbia?  I am sure you can name the first few quite easily – basketball, volleyball, football.  But did you know about curling, tennis and ski and snowboarding?  There are some questions of whether there are too many school sports.  Again not a simple issue.  I have coached some senior boys and girls soccer.  Now soccer is done very well in the community but there was something great about having students organize by schools and play using “school values” which are often different from the values promoted in the community.  Like UBC saw when they looked at reducing their university Varsity sports, any move to reduce the number of sports would be met with questions of “why us”?  It does seem unwieldy to try to offer so many sports particularly given the other challenges.

In referencing a need to look at our model in the past post, I did begin to make the argument that we are moving to a much more participatory culture with a focus of having all young people engaged and not just the elite athletes.  There is no shortage of news stories around the concerns over youth inactivity and governments of all levels around the world are working on strategies to have young people be more active.  And while “sports” are a great way and we need to be exposing more kids at younger ages to the range of options, “competitive sports” in schools are often about the few participating not the many.  While it is great to win provincial championships, there is definitely something to be said for having all students out running and playing.

It used to work out perfectly – there are three natural terms to a school year and three sports seasons.  Of course the era of a sport being done in a single season is over.  In the old version, come November the volleyballs would go away and the basketballs would come out.  Then come spring break, the basketballs went away and out came the track spikes.  Now all seasons spill into one another.  It is hard for coaches to coach multiple sports and the community quickly picks up the parts that the school is not doing as almost all sports at high school are year-round.

Traditionally schooling has been very localized. The sense of global competition was not ever-present as it is today.  As the academic competition increases, school sports are often seen as an add-on for teachers and students.  Teaching has never been more difficult and the expectations around the profession are at an all-time high.  Do parents want their math teachers coaching volleyball for 3 hours a night or prepping their lessons?  Of course the answer is probably both.  But this is a huge challenge as teachers invest more time in their lessons to support students and students invest more times in their studies to be competitive in the global learning race, sports can be seen as a nice extra but not part of the core for school.

Our current set of rules are all about schools, yet increasingly our system is about students.  The system of school eligibility is about creating a fair playing field for all schools.  There are a number of eligibility policies in place to keep this.  And this has largely worked.  We have an ongoing trend of students taking courses from multiple locations, often a blend of face-to-face and online courses and it seems likely that students will increasingly be defined less by being a member of one school.  So, as a student takes a couple of courses at one school, a few at another and still other with a third institution online – how do we deal with this in a school sports eligibility sense?  School sports are built around the “school” as the centre point but personalizing learning is about the “student” at the centre.  And while I was a vocal leader of creating a fair playing field for schools I see the world shifting.

Try this out.  Find a really good high school volleyball or basketball player and ask them – who do you play for?  In these two sports that have been primarily school sports throughout time, most kids will not answer with their school but their club.  Students now primarily identify with their club not their school.  This has happened fast – I see it with my own elementary aged children.   Yes, kids play sports for the school but this is not seen as their primary identification.  While yes, in some sports in some communities the high school is the primary or only game in town – there are no sports left where the majority of training and growth happens in schools.  Student athletes compete for their school but they play for their clubs.

Parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.  One of the great appeals of school sports to families has been that they open doors to a university education.  Students are now regularly seen through club programs and students could receive full scholarships in a “school sport” without ever playing that sport in high school. Colleges and universities are also looking to bypass school programs creating their own club structures that feed their university programs rather than relying on high schools to develop their future players.

And of all of the challenges, I think the biggest one might be that potentially the community does a better job than schools of providing competitive sports.   Public and private providers in the community may be better at offering competitive sports than schools.  I wonder, if schools did not currently offer competitive athletics would there be a push to start them?  I think the answer is no.  The number of community, not-for-profit and for-profit groups offering competitive athletics is growing exponentially.  And while some of the offerings make me cringe, there are many fabulous opportunities for young people in the community that did not exist even a decade ago.  And while not perfect, groups like KidSport are helping make community sports accessible to all families.

I don’t think there is any one of the challenges in on the list that is insurmountable.  It is more about the cumulative effect of them all.  And to be clear, I am definitely not convinced that the loss of school sports would not be without huge repercussions for schools from overall student engagement, to morale to achievement levels – it might be a future reality though.  And if sports remained in independent schools and not public schools I think we would see a mass exodus from our public institutions.

While we are envisioning teaching, learning and schooling of the future we better add athletics to the conversation.  If we don’t, there will be more voices like Amanda Ripley, making the Case Against High-School Sports.   For me, hearing stories about finding our way back to the 1970’s when schools dismissed and Empire Stadium was full with students for track meets or the glory days of basketball championships at the Agrodome are great stories but not instructive.  We need to get to figuring out the role of schools in competitive sports as we go forward.

And while I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while, looking 20 years out we need to think of what new model will work.

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1951-52_Old_Forge_High_School_Basketball_Team

This is the first of two posts on the subject of school athletics.  I was planning to start with a series of reasons why today’s students may be the final generation to see sports in school as we know them but instead I am saving that for my next post.  For this first post I want to outline five reasons why school sports may continue well into the future.

School sports have always been a big part of my life, as a student, a teacher and a parent.  Some of my most wonderful friendships are because of connections I made through school athletics.  I do think we are in rapidly changing times, and suggesting that school sports may slowly disappear from our schools is not too far-fetched (As a bit of a preview I think issues like cost, safety, available coaches, onerous regulations and increased competition are all challenging school sports).  That said, I find a number of compelling reasons that may mean the obstacles will be just that obstacles, and school sports will continue well into the future.

Here are five reasons that can lead me to believe those of you watching your children play school sports, will get to repeat the rite of passage with your grandchildren.

Firstly, nostalgia is big in schools.  One of the qualities that people like about schools is they generally look the same for children as they did for their parents.  Adults often romanticize their school sports experiences – from cheering on the football team, to scoring the winning goal in the soccer game. School rituals are often slow to change thus one could argue school sports are not going anywhere.  There will be too much of a push to keep them.  And while one can point to some jurisdictions around the world that don’t have them, they never have.  School sports are such a part of the fabric of our schools.

Somewhat related, is that high school sports receive much more media coverage that community sports.  When the media chooses to shine a light on school sports the public watches and listens which then influences the decisions young people make around sports.  We are especially fortunate in British Columbia with Howard Tsumura at the Province Newspaper.  No other major daily paper in the country gives the attention to high school sports as the Vancouver Province and Howard’s work, like his recent piece on why he loves high school basketball, helps ensure school sports are in the public eye.  From our major daily newspapers, to television to local community papers there is far more coverage for teenagers playing school sports than those playing community sports.  And this, in turn, helps to continue to support high school sports programs.

While there are many others in the community offering sporting opportunities, school districts in British Columbia, and across North America, own most of the gymnasiums.  So when it comes to sports like volleyball, basketball, badminton and wrestling, it makes sense for schools to offer them since they have the facilities.  For outside providers to offer these sports they have to pay gym rentals which can be often cost prohibitive.  In other countries gymnasiums are like hockey rinks in Canada, and community facilities.  As long as schools own the places where sports take place they will continue to be primary providers of the sports.

Another real potential for school sports is that, like with so much else in our schools, sports programs will evolve and new models will be created.  I am particularly vested in this as we are trying just that in West Vancouver.  For us, we have taken one of the primary school sports, basketball, and wrapped some programming around it (HERE) that help support athletes, develop coaches and keep students at their home school.  For better or worse, sports have changed where almost all sports offer year-round options and training begins at much younger ages.  School sports and community sports need to form new partnerships so that students are not left to select between playing sports at school and the community. There also needs to be different entry points – so you can have a team that has a range of commitment levels but all those involved have access to training and support to meet their levels of interest.  Our thinking around new models, is that rather than have all students attend one school with a particular sports passion, how do we support them at multiple schools, so they can continue to compete for their home schools and we can reinforce the value of inter-school competition.

Another possibility to ensure the long-term viability of school sports is some sort of new hybrid model of recreation and competition.  There is clearly a global push to have all our students be more active.  Our traditional sports have often been about selecting some students to participate in a model where a small percentage of the student body actually participate.  There are exceptions like football and rugby that have larger numbers, but it is generally true that school teams are quite small given the overall population of many schools.  One possibility is that a new group of sports emerge / reemerge that have larger teams and are more recreation based.  We have seen this with the growth of Ultimate in schools. Another possibility is that increased resources shift from inter-school teams to in-house intramural programs

There are major shifts happening in schooling.  And so many shifts with the nature of teaching and learning.  It is interesting that so far most of the discussion around school sports seem to be about trying to return them to some glory days of the past.  In the next post I will outline some real challenges that seem to be facing school sports moving forward.

There are many who would argue that they just couldn’t imagine schools without sports as we know them. But that is not really the purpose of this post – it is not about whether they are important, it is about the drives and blockers to their long term success.

As I talk to athletes and coaches and read stories in the newspaper, in many ways school sports are continuing to make a difference like they always have before.  And, of course, they have a lot going for them to assume this will continue into the future.

 

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