Are high school sports in need of radical reform? And if so, how can it be done?

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·16-min read

Imagine scrapping high school varsity sports altogether. Imagine just getting rid of it and starting over.

Chances are that if you had to invent what scholastic sports would look like in the United States, without the tradition and muscle memory of the last century clouding your thinking, it wouldn’t look much like what it is now.

Because what we have now – public schools competing against each other in fevered spectacles of pageantry and ambition – doesn’t seem to make sense. Not when you consider the original purpose of interscholastic sports. The point of public school sports was, originally, to get America’s teenagers moving, to keep them out of trouble, to teach them life lessons.

Somewhere along the way, all of that was forgotten about.

High school sports have been altered to cater only to the talented and the single-minded, excluding everyone else from the physical, psychological and social benefits of sporting competition at a crucial age. They’ve been put in the service of the pursuit of scholarships and prestige, of dreams and tribalism, when the spoils of such a system accrue to so very few. We began worrying about how to get our kids into college sports, to the pros perhaps; about building lavish facilities; about seeing names in newspapers and on recruitment websites; about seeing highlights on local television. And, of course, getting one over those miserable hooligans from the next town over.

Shorn of all that baggage, you might invent a high school sports system centered around inclusion and the physical well-being of the largest possible number of students. You likely would not focus on competition and furthering the collegiate and professional prospects of, at most, a handful of your students.

You might build a sprawling program of intramural sports that serves everyone, in any sport, at any level. You likely would not foreclose on the health of the many to benefit the students with the silky jump shot, the radar-gun 40-yard dash or the opposite-field power.

The structure of high school sports in the United States is rather unique on a global scale. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
The structure of high school sports in the United States is rather unique on a global scale. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

High school sports in America are a marriage of inconvenience

That’s what Dr. Jimmy Lynch, who oversees athletics for Philadelphia’s 300 schools and 200,000 students, would like to do. He’s trying to create an intramural track to run alongside the varsity programs in his high schools, just like on college campuses. In elementary and middle schools, he’s working on accessible sports programs for all. Last spring, his district started a pilot program for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders that had, Lynch says, promising early results before the pandemic shut everything down.

But unlike in colleges, there are funding challenges. The money is sucked up by the competitive sports teams, even though in a public school of 2,000 students, there are, at most, three teams in each sport for each gender. If 1,000 of those students were male and 300 of them had an interest in playing basketball, even a varsity, junior varsity and freshman team would combine to offer just 45 spots or so. Only the elite athletes get to play.

Lynch argues that cutting varsity sports and spending all the resources on intramurals instead makes sense. “There’s definitely an argument to be made for that,” he says. “I just don’t know how successful that will be.”

He’s right, of course. You would never get it past your school board, let alone the parents. Yet it’s readily apparent that the public high school sports system is profoundly imperfect, badly broken even. To compound that problem, so is the youth sports industry, since it has become an 11-figure business.

Public high school and private club sports are both exclusive, leaving a youth sports void that swallows up far too many children and teenagers. In 2017, only 39 percent of students played high school sports, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In 2018, only 38 percent of 6-12 year-olds played organized sports, per the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Those numbers are trending down and tend to be worse in urban and poor areas. Several studies have shown that the more money your family has, the likelier you are to play organized sports in your youth, equipping you with all the benefits – better health, better grades, greater college acceptance rates, higher lifetime earnings – that will contribute to your own success and, conversely, increase the likelihood that the wealthy stay that way and the poor remain poor.

Perhaps American youth sports should be extricated from education. Maybe there is a better way to structure high school athletics. Almost no other country does it this way, and a clear division between sport and education seems to serve them well.

Lynch argues that there is no universal solution because no two schools are the same. One school might have an entire complex of sports facilities and another might not even have a gym. In cities, schools are physically accessible and familiar, often acting as a safe haven for students. Rec centers tend to be underfunded and harder to reach there. Outside of cities, however, the rec infrastructure might be better developed and easier to get to for families used to driving places.

A possible pandemic age makes this uneasy alliance between schools and sports even more tense. With classes perhaps moving online somewhat regularly, sports are caught in the middle. You can’t reasonably play in person when you can’t hold face-to-face classes. So maybe this, a time when school budgets and priorities will be reassessed, is a natural breaking point for youth sports to be separated from education. Or, better yet, for it to be reoriented to serve every student, rather than just the star athletes.

The case against high school sports

We are the lone nation to do it this way, just about. Only Japan’s high school baseball system, which ends in the rapturous and mythical Koshien national tournament every August, really compares to our high school sports, to the cavernous and packed football stadiums in Texas, to the basketball games played in college arenas and broadcast nationally.

The rest of the world plays its youth sports in clubs. Standalone, well-funded yet affordable, often sport-specific clubs that usually have age groups beginning in elementary school and running all the way through middle age.

In America, high school sports emerged in the early 20th century. New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League staged its first track and field finals for 1,040 local boys at no less a venue than Madison Square Garden. And while it was a different building in a different location back then, in 1903, it still accommodated 8,000 spectators. American high school sports were big-time right from the start.

High school sports in the United States have come a long way since the early 1900s. (Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
High school sports in the United States have come a long way since the early 1900s. (Photo by Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

The reason sports were tied in with school at all was that no alternative existed. Boys played in unruly pickup games that often turned violent. And in concert with the “Muscular Christianity” movement, which viewed sports as a way of keeping young men disciplined and fit and godly, the schools stepped in to corral the chaos.

Those schools, both high school and college, wanted to maintain control of their students and brought sports inside the gates. They became competitive, garnered media coverage, and the whole thing took off from there. In Europe, school administrators went the other way and saw no value in their institutions competing with one another. And so they largely kept sports outside their walls, leaving room for youth clubs to develop. This is perhaps because Europe had better-established local communities that could absorb this organizational burden – there wasn’t a need for high school sports to act as a binding agent in emerging towns like there was stateside.

What ensued was not a means of keeping young people on the straight and narrow but, because this is America, a business. But all this revenue begat a lot of problems.

Do we have to go through them all?

Let’s cover a selection of the ways in which sports can be damaging to public high schools:

“School sports works really well in some places,” says Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sport and Society program, which seeks to put sports back in the service of the public interest. “All you have to do is go to any number of prep schools. In those kinds of environments, where the supply of opportunities meets the demand for them, and, what they are being taught in the course of interacting with that sport by their coaches and administrators, is developmentally appropriate and valuable, it can be a tremendous institution.

“The problem is that there are a lot of schools where the supply does not meet the demand and what is being taught is inconsistent with the mission of the school.”

David Ridpath, a professor of sport management at Ohio University, sees little merit in American exceptionalism with regards to high school sports. And, like Farrey, he envisions a post-pandemic educational landscape that will only exacerbate the glaring problems. “We really are the only country in the world that has elite sport development primarily grounded in education,” he says. “COVID has shown the house of cards that that is. We have a problem here. We need to look at different models. Because education-based sport has become primarily about elite sport development and the race to the top, rather than broad-based participation for a healthy, sound mind and body – which is what education and sports are supposed to be about.”

In his book, “Alternative Models of Sports Development in America,” Ridpath offers the complete separation from sports from schools and colleges as one possible solution to its failings. He suggests that funding for local sports clubs could come from subsidies from local, state or federal government, membership fees, lottery proceeds, or old-fashioned sponsorship. That’s how it works in Europe.

Whatever shape it takes, a drastic rethinking of high school sports in American public schools is overdue. “It’s absolutely ready for a reset,” Farrey says. “And I think COVID-19 is going to force that reset because budgets are being shrunk and the needs of students have only grown.”

The case for high school sports

Dr. Lynch, the athletic director of Philadelphia schools, doesn’t disagree. “Scholastic sports are definitely ripe for reform,” he says.

But he doesn’t see a future for it outside of the educational system. “I think school and sports deserve to have a place in each other’s space,” he says. “Especially where I am in a large city, sports can be a hub that keeps a kid engaged and focused on school. I do see a value of sports being an extension of the classroom. However, what we’ve gotten to now is not a good place because what you’re starting to see is where in Europe the club model is really built for everybody, for us it’s unfortunately not that case.”

For all of the flaws to high school sports, especially in public schools, it retains a lot of benefits. It drives school attendance. It’s a cudgel for teachers to keep students accountable. (But then it’s been argued that when the focus shifts from sports to academics, the appeal and prestige follows and you no longer need sports as a carrot.) Sports create a community around school. Public school sports are accessible to everyone, so long as they make the team. And public programs like Little League and Pop Warner are slowly dying, devoured by a travel sports scene that ruthlessly monetizes the ambition of parents.

Elite club youth sports seem to be systematically bleeding recreational youth leagues dry by creating an up-or-out culture where children either reach the next level or quit, never mind the health, social and psychological benefits of merely participating. According to one survey, 70 percent of children quit organized sports by the age of 13 – presumably because most see little point in carrying on if they can’t hang in the next step up.

According to one survey, kids are leaving organized sports behind by the age of 13 at an eye-opening rate. (Getty Images)
According to one survey, kids are leaving organized sports behind by the age of 13 at an eye-opening rate. (Getty Images)

But not everybody gets to take that next step on talent alone. A wide income gap has emerged in youth sports. Children from households earning more than $100,000 are more than twice as likely to have played a team sport than those from households earning $25,000 or less. Fees and travel costs are pricing out lower-income families. Some kids who don't show talent at a young age are discouraged from ever participating in organized sports.

During the pandemic, the financial incentives have become clearer. Some sports clubs have canceled rec-level games but still put on the travel team games.

That’s why the experts quoted in this story advocating for a shift to club sports emphasize that new models must be developed that keep them affordable and accessible, otherwise those clubs are every bit as exclusive as teams in public high schools, defeating the purpose.

A national policy for high school sports in the US

It is probably anathema to the American spirit, but the clearest way of saving high school sports – and, arguably, by extension youth sports writ large – is to pivot away from competition. By de-emphasizing winning and championships at the expense of other schools, you can transition from quality to quantity.

The notion might feel unconventional, but it is preferable for lots of young people to play sports at a poor level than for fewer of them to play at a high level. Because the level isn’t the point; participation is. But such a radical rethink requires a national policy. And that isn’t where we, as a country, tend to thrive.

Because we are the rarer developed country without a department or ministry for sports, one that watches over the nation’s access to sports and all its health benefits. The closest the U.S. has come was Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative while she was First Lady. And as independent non-profits, the NCAA or United States Olympic Committee don’t fulfill that role either.

“There is no government agency that is responsible for large-scale physical fitness and sports,” says Dionne Koller, a law professor and director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore. “And that’s unusual in the world. We’re very behind the rest of the world from that perspective.”

As a result, we don’t just lack the ability to set national policy around youth sports, we don’t even have reliable statistics on participation. Instead, we rely on surveys from industry groups. “I’d love to see the United States develop a sports ministry, a government sports agency, whose task it is to reform grassroots youth sports,” Koller says. “I can see down the line where we would develop an infrastructure to get sports out of schools.

“We need a lot more public policy in sports. There’s this idea that it’s a bad idea to have government policy in sports. We have simply, as a government at all levels, deferred to schools and sports administrators to make up their programs however they want to. So we don’t have government regulation, we don’t set standards that say, ‘Here are the types of sports you should be offering. Here’s the purpose of a sports program. Every kid in your school should have a sports opportunity.’”

In the absence of overarching guidance on what school sports are for, districts and schools filled in the blanks by emulating a professional mindset of competing to win, pursuing prestige no matter the opportunity cost. Now, within that entrenched culture, not much consideration is given to whether football is really worth the sky-high price, or if that money would be better spent on co-ed softball, track and field days for the entire student body or an emerging sport like ultimate frisbee or parkour.

And so kids drop out when they don’t think they’re good enough, or are disabled and not accommodated, or simply don’t want to deal with the pressure. “The values of sports programs have been so ingrained: ‘You have to play to win, to find out who is best,’” Koller says. “That has so trickled down to our schools that we have a lot of kids who by the time they hit high school have already decided if they’re an athlete or not. That’s why a model has to be everybody plays.”

Such an arrangement would not only help the students, it would behoove the government as well, Ridpath argues. Because a population that plays more sports will cost a lot less in healthcare, a major benefit to our society. “We’ve made high school sports about winning and to a lesser extent about revenue generation, and that’s not what it’s supposed to be about,” Ridpath says.

Suddenly, in a pandemic, an opportunity has emerged, a window to rethink things as American life as we know it has been turned upside down. Lots of things will change in all kinds of ways. Why not our high school sports, too?

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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