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Are Varsity Sports Destroying Exercise and Ruining America's Schools?

Students who get a lot of exercise perform better academically. But competitive varsity sports limit the availability of rigorous activity in schools.


In October Amanda Ripley wrote an article for TheAtlantic arguing that the problem with American education (our low performance relative to other developed countries is well documented) can be almost entirely explained by the presence of varsity sports. Those high performing Asian nations, after all, are without most sports. All of their energy goes to exam drilling and hours of study. As she wrote:

If Americans transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports—the rankings, the trophies, the ceremonies, the pride—to high-school academics ... we would look not so different from South Korea, or Japan, or any of a handful of Asian countries whose hypercompetitive, pressure-cooker approach to academics in many ways mirrors the American approach to sports. Both approaches can be dysfunctional; both set kids up for stress and disappointment. The difference is that 93 percent of South Korean students graduate from high school, compared with just 77 percent of American students—only about 2 percent of whom receive athletic scholarships to college.

She’s got a point. But it’s not just Asia that’s worth considering here. Varsity sports are also curiously absent from high-performing European nations. As one former college basketball coach, Len Stevens, put it last year, high school sports are just too destructive to the high school education. High school sports were supposed to be “a completely inclusive part of the educational experiences.” But today fewer than half of coaches are even teachers and less than 10 percent of students even bother to attend the games, let alone play in them. Dan Hinxman interviewed Stevens for an article in theReno Gazette-Journal:

Stevens thinks [the answer] is to go to the European model. There are virtually no high school sports in Europe, just club sports. (England has a high school sports program but it is highly overshadowed by club sports, and the rest of Europe has very limited, almost intramural-level prep sports.)

Club sports have been growing in the U.S. for years, and Stevens believes if we go to club sports that would answer a lot of problems and put the high school focus back where it belongs, on education.

(The United Kingdom, incidentally, also does pretty poorly as far as educational achievement goes.)

Are athletics our downfall? The problem is that hyper-competitive varsity sports at the secondary level are very rare internationally. Low-performing nations also don’t have these sports.

According to research presented earlier this month at the annual Obesity Week conference (because that’s a thing that happens in America), getting a lot of exercise leads students, particularly poor students, to perform better in school. Results from one of the paper's that was presented, “Impact of Socioeconomic Disparities on the Relationships Between Fitness and Academic Outcomes Among New York City Public School Children in Grades 6-8, 2006-2010”:

This longitudinal study assesses whether fitness-academic relationships vary by student poverty and race/ethnicity. The analysis included 87,000 students who consecutively completed grades 6-8 in New York City public schools. Unique student identifiers linked annual fitness and academic test results and demographics from 2006-2010.

Results: a substantial increase [in academic outcomes] was associated with an increase in academics ... in high poverty boys and girls. A substantial decrease was associated with decreases in academics in both high poverty and low poverty boys, but only in high poverty girls.

Why is this? One of the paper’s authors, Tiffany Harris of the Bureau of Epidemiology Services at New York City Department of Health, told Al Jazeera that “better fitness may help [children from poor families] to better cope [with stress]. It may also be that the concentration required to increase their fitness levels helps them concentrate on schoolwork and in the classroom.”

Those involved in high school athletics have long understood some implicit relationship between participation and academic performance. Athletes generally do better in school. As Barbara Fiege, commissioner of athletics for Los Angeles Unified School District, explained last year, “students in our schools who participate in athletics attend school significantly more often, have higher GPA’s and score higher on the CST’s in both English and Math, when compared to the rest of the student body."

Fiege's observations complement research demonstrating that varsity athletes do better in school than their peers who don’t play sports. Research from 2009 in Kansas found that “high school athletes earned higher grades, graduated at a higher rate, dropped out of school less frequently, and scored higher on state assessments than did non-athletes....” And they appear to do better in school for the same reasons as those proposed by the obesity researchers. As the scholars who conducted the Kansas study explained:

These results ... suggest that the Kansas eligibility requirement that students must pass five units of credit each semester to retain eligibility to participate in high school sports may contribute to some athletes taking their school work more seriously. Coaches and other educators could plausibly argue that high school sports can help teach and reinforce greater self-discipline that assists students in managing their time and fulfilling their academic responsibilities.

We undermine athletics at our own peril. Sort of.

The problem is that while we know athletic activity improves academic performance because athletes do better in school, we don’t, in America, try very hard to get everyone to participate in rigorous exercise. In public schools, varsity sports are voluntary and selective, and gym classes must be squeezed in irregularly, and inconveniently, between other classes.

In the public school in my hometown the varsity football coach was a former high school football star and married to the cheerleading coach, who also served as the gym teacher. He ran varsity sports practices that were rigorous and intense. His actual gym classes, however, often consisted of dodge ball games in which the varsity athletes threw balls at the wimps and the fat kids, who were out in three minutes, and then spent the rest of the time dodging balls they threw at each other. And my experience isn't atypical.

Another game we played regularly was some bizarre contest called California Kickball in which we ran backwards and there were no limits as to how many people could be on each base at a time. This, at least nominally, required the participation of the entire class, though aside from the seconds of running between the bases, no one really got any exercise at all. A good 60 percent of the class on most days seemed to spend an entire hour getting virtually no workout at all. Some people were getting exercise, but they weren't the kids who most needed it.

If this experience is common, it suggests that by placing extensive resources in the hands of varsity sports, schools may be sending the message that exercise is limited to the athletically gifted. This is not a good way to create healthy adolescents, or encourage academic achievement.

As Ripley suggests in The Atlantic, sports may be really good for individual participants, but not at all good for the school culture itself. Students in Europe get a lot of exercise, after all, but what they don’t do is play competitive sports. This is, as both Ripley and Stevens indicate, the real problem with fitness in American schools. Getting rigorous exercise is probably good for academic performance, much as it is for many other things in life, but the competitive, winner-take-all athletic experience, common to many American high schools, is much less useful, even destructive.

While it might be very useful for students to get exercise by playing sports, it’s maybe not so important, in terms of education achievement, for them to be any good at them. While America’s sports advocates might be really eager to tout the benefits of varsity athletics, no one’s ever been able to demonstrate that a star quarterback is statistically more likely to be a better student than the skinny kid who spends most of the games on the bench. Just showing up every day at practice and breaking a sweat might be enough to promote academic success.