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Athletics: The other half of education

We are living in challenging times! I am not speaking about the spirit with which one high school football team or basketball team challenges another or the courage that is required for a young high school wrestler to face an intimidating opponent.
Instead, I’m referring to the economic challenges facing school corporations throughout Indiana. Budget cuts not only threaten the quality of the classroom experience, they also put ‘extracurricular’ activities, such as high school sports, at risk.
In reality, referring to activity programs (such as athletics, band, drama, debate, etc.) as ‘extracurricular’ is a misnomer. They actually are ‘co-curricular’ due to the many life lessons that one learns through participation.
The role that athletics play in our state’s high schools is not to be taken for granted, nor is it to be taken lightly. Numerous research studies prove that student-athletes are more successful than students who choose not to participate in athletics. For example, a comprehensive statewide study conducted over a three-year period in North Carolina showed dramatic differences between student-athletes and non-athletes in five areas:
‘Grade-point average: 2.86, athletes; 1.96, non-athletes
‘Absences in 180-day school year: 6.5, athletes; 12.57, non-athletes
‘Discipline referrals: 30.5 percent, athletes; 40.3 percent, non-athletes
‘Dropout rate: 0.7 percent, athletes; 8.98 percent, non-athletes
‘Graduation rate: 99.56 percent, athletes; 94.66 percent, non-athletes
Evidence of the value of activity and athletic programs is more than anecdotal. Consider these facts:
‘In the publication, No Child Left Behind: The Facts about 21st Century Learning, published by the United States Department of Education, it was reported that students who spent no time in extracurricular activities were 49 percent more likely to use drugs and 37 percent more likely to become teenage parents.
‘Researchers writing in a 2004 article published in the American Journal of Health Behavior showed that students participating in organized high school sports were 25 percent less likely to be current cigarette smokers.
‘A Harvard Educational Review article in 2002 found that participation in after-school activities appears to be one of the few interventions that benefit low-status, disadvantaged high school students as much or more than their more advantaged peers. (Coincidentally, these co-curricular activities are also instrumental in teaching essential life skills to teenagers who live in single parent homes, which is 30 percent of all the households in Indiana.)
Certainly, at the Indiana High School Athletic Association Inc., we are more focused on athletic participation than on other activities, so many of my thoughts are centered on the value of education-based athletics in our schools. However, I believe these concepts are applicable to other co-curricular activities, as well.
Not only do high school athletic programs produce better students, they serve as a source of pride for local high schools, unify communities and develop character. Additionally, they provide an unique opportunity for teenagers to learn much-needed life skills that may not be a part of the classroom curriculum.
Athletic programs provide valuable lessons for practical situations. Where else can a teenager learn the value of teamwork, the importance of sportsmanship and the lesson that success is a by-product of hard work? Where else can a high school student learn self-discipline, build self-confidence and develop the skills to handle competitive, pressure-packed situations? These are all products of education-based athletics and are qualities they will need in order to become responsible, productive citizens.
When I was a high school principal, I always treasured those dedicated teachers who were devoted to inspiring their students to learn and appreciate their particular discipline, whether it be physics, calculus, literature or a foreign language. These educators were knowledgeable, stimulating people to have on a faculty. However, by necessity, the focal point of all outstanding classroom teachers must be on the academics.
Therefore, unless they are taught at home, and, unfortunately, many are not, where are our young people going to learn those essential life skills that are an innate component of competitive athletics?
In addition, obesity rates among teenagers have more than tripled in the past 30 years. Overweight children of all ages have become a problem of epidemic proportion in America. And yet, if there is one sure remedy for hypertension, heart disease and diabetes among our young people, it is active participation in a high school sport.
High school sports teach a lesson that it would be good for all of society to learn, especially in tough economic times like these: When faced with a challenge, regardless of how monumental it might seem, we have to work harder and work together if we expect to prevail. And that’s what is needed right now, the resolve to work harder and work together to solve the financial crisis facing our state’s schools, but without ‘watering down’ the total learning experience.
If we have that resolve to resist the temptation to make the cost of competing prohibitive or, worse yet, to totally eliminate athletic programs in our high schools, the winner will be our state’s young people. They need all the help we can give them as they enter a global society that is increasingly complex, fast-paced and competitive.