High School Sports: is the Character they Build Bad?
Imagine if you will, dear reader, that a strappingly built British fellow were to appear before your school board. He has a brilliant, if rather odd, proposal to make. He suggests that your school should institute a modern derivation of several ancient past times. These rituals, he explains, have been used in ancient cultures as a way to serve their pagan deities, establish political dominance, train their warriors, and provide sexual gratification for the male elders of the culture who enjoyed watching beautiful youth compete in the nude or with skimpy clothing. This handsome Brit suggests that these games will build character in your high school students by encouraging them to hone their competitive urges, form absolute obedience to their ritual master and compatriots, and increase their sexual desirability among their peers. He suggests that these games could be highly competitive, serving to create a natural pecking order of the elite within the school and motivating all students to compete for a handful of positions among the national or global fellowship of star participants. These rituals, he seeks to reassure the school board, may cost so much that music and art programs will have to be discontinued but that is a small price to pay for an increase in the mystic force he calls the “school Spirit.”
How would you respond to this foreigner? Perhaps, like noted cult expert Jeff Lindsay, you would attempt to warn the public about this sinister gamble for our children’s futures. As Lindsay warns his reader, “This cult takes up many hours of student time, imposes physically grueling demands, requires total obedience to shadowy authority figures who exert control over many aspects of the child’s life, subjects them to extreme peer pressure to perform and achieve goals for the group, demands that the child obey strict rules of behavior and diet, and even forces the child to wear special ritualistic clothing – often including special underwear (at least for boys)!” (Lindsay, 1)
Perhaps your fearful response would change, however, when the school board was introduced to the modern names of these re-invented rituals. Ancient practices like the Mesopotamian ballgame, which were once replete with human sacrifice of the losers, have been sanitized by gym teachers and translated into something called “basketball.”
Other ball games once outlawed by the pope for their pagan associations (ballgame.org) have been renamed as “football” and “baseball.” And while the ancient Greek pedophilic game of wrestling is still called approximately the same thing, the boys will be allowed to wear clothes! Surely these aren’t that frightening. Once you know that these old practices have modern names, surely you can accept that they are a necessary part of the modern school experience?
One must admit that this scenario is somewhat absurdist. Games are already a vital part of our school system and already receive funding above and beyond that available for the arts. And Jeff Lindsay, who really is an expert on the theory of cults, was just using the “cultic specialty… [of] competitive sports.” (Lindsay, 1) as a spoof of the way in which a biased observer can interpret any religion as a dangerous cult. This scenario with the strapping Brit is a mere metaphor for a process that took place over a hundred years ago (Miracle and Rees describe the movement of school sports from Britain to American in the 19th century) and with very little protest. However, a modern observer might indeed due well to reconsider the prospect of competitive school sports from the ground up. This essay seeks to prove a simple, and yet very controversial point: competitive sports, as they currently exist in American schools, are unhealthy for students.
Before this point can be proven, it is worth taking a moment to define the terms of this argument: competitive should not be taken to refer to the rules of the game, but rather to the focus of the game. A game which is competitive, in that the players compete with one another and the game rules requires winners and losers is not necessarily unhealthy for children. Children naturally compete to some degree in their games. However, in modern schools games are not merely competitive by nature of their rules — they are competitive by nature of their social ramifications and structure. Students not only compete while playing, but they also compete intensely for the mere privilege of playing, and continue to compete intensely not merely against their immediate opposition on the playing field but against all other teams in all other schools and even against their own teammates for recognition and possible promotion to the “Pros” or for college scholarships. Competition becomes not merely the fashion in which the game is played, but the reason for playing — the “game” focuses not on amusement and physical activity but on competition and winning. “Winning in sport, like winning in life for Americans, is outcome-oriented, not process-oriented. The usual question asked after a fame is not how well you played or how enjoyable it was, but ‘What was the score?’… losing is worse than death because you have to live with losing!” (Miracle & Rees, 14) So this essay in no way means to imply that fun games (whether those be hide and seek, checkers, or friendly match of basketball or baseball) should not conclude in one side or person winning while another side or person looses, but that a system which focuses on competition to the detriment of inclusion and recreation is inherently unhealthy for children. This essay will particularly focus on the modern American incarnation of competitive sports, which suffers from an extreme of this unhealthy systematic competition. From this point forward, then, when the essay refers to “sports” or “athletics,” this reference should be understood as specifically referring to the modern, systematically competitive American incarnation of intermural competition and not to other physically-intensive recreational activities or even intramural games.
Before even dealing with the full social ramification of sports, which are themselves far-reaching, one would do well to look at the actual scientific data regarding the effect of sports on high school students. Research by Donald Demoulin, published in a peer reviewed journal of Instructional Psychology, showed that “students without [being] Sports involved showed greater Personal Maturity.” (pp. 1) in no other organized activity did students become less mature or have a reduction in their grade point average except sports. Demoulin’s research found that students involved in music or leadership activities (such as student government or debate teams) had higher average grades, while athletes did not. Moreover, students in music showed increased maturity while students in leadership showed increased assertiveness and confidence. The only benefit which athletes had was “greater social integration” (Demoulin, 1) which only means that they were more popular and had a tight group coherency with other athletes.
This research essentially proved what intelligent high school students have known for years: athletes are more popular but lack in maturity. Their popularity is not even beneficial for them. Further research performed by Eccles and Barber showed that students who participate in competitive sports are more likely to be actively involved in trouble-making. “Compared with the other students in extracurricular activities, athletes were more likely to use drugs and alcohol….” (Sleek, 1) it is relatively common knowledge that high school sports stars are known for being more sexually active as well. Drugs and alcohol, along with promiscuous sex, may be directly linked to the popularity culture which includes partying, and may also be related to the reduced inhibitions which stem from group-think.
The way in which sports create a sort of amoral mob mentality is clearly discussed in Miracle and Rees’ book Lessons of the Locker Room. They write about a concept called game reasoning which is a situational morality according great moral superiority to victory and allowing for objectively immoral activities if they allow one to succeed in the game. Of course, many games and contact sports which have a degree of physical violence implicit in them, and might promote a certain callousness towards the pain of others and danger to children who are involved. However, the danger that Miracle and Rees address is far more serious. They explain that athletes often seriously consider intentionally harming others. They quote student athletes justifying foul-plays and intentional harm to opponents:
one athlete thought that [a player] should injure his opponent because these were the coach’s instructions. ‘If the coach tells to do something, you have to do it. You have to take orders or you’ll get taken right out of the fame. You can’t play it your way.’… this means that in certain sports some behavior that is defined as illegal by the rules is really seen by athletes as a normal part of the game. Fighting in hockey is an example of such behavior. Game reasoning… legitimates many acts that would normally be considered illegitimate. These ‘legitimated’ acts were inevitably advantageous to oneself or one’s team… athletes are attempting to reconcile everyday morality with the demands of victory. Sometimes the line was rather vague and athletes endorsed violence as a legitimate response.” (Miracle, 92)
Sports promote violence because physically harming opponents is a natural part of the game, and just increasing the amount of harm enough to disable them is always a seductive option to losing. This promotion of violence would not be true if students would just play for fun — no one would remain friends with a boy who, for example, kicked people in the shins so they couldn’t run fast enough to get away in hide and seek! But a boy who obeyed his coach and “took down” another football player with enough force to keep him on the bench for the rest of the game might become a school hero if this won his team the game. Miracle and Rees explain the way that that compete the analyzing the way in which it misguides the priorities of youth. And make winning the ultimate goal. This is the key concern, of course with spirits that are “outcome-oriented, not process-oriented.” (Miracle & Rees, 14)
Because sports do promote violence and endanger the ability of students to focus on schoolwork (due to making victory, not book-learning, the main priority), some have argued that the competitive environment of high school sports promotes an atmosphere of physical and cultural abuse of children. Paulo David argues that we should see youth sports in terms of human rights, and questions whether the “best interest of the child” (pp. 3) can be served when they are involved in sports. He sites a variety of threats to children from sports, including intensive practice that gives way to both physical and psychological abuse and even violence, game play which is physically dangerous, and the prevalance of performance-related drug use (such as steroids and diet pills) and eating disorders. Paulo David also seriously poses the question that many have neglected “Does intensive training qualify as child labour?” (pp. 3) and raises the specter of commercial exploitation of exceptional child athletes “put… under contract or traded between clubs for thousands of dollars without being properly informed and consulted” (David, 3) This issue of economic exploitation and dangerous recruitment will come up again in may other sources.
Sports not only promote violence and expose children to violence and danger, they also play a significant role in preserving and creating sexual and racial inequality. Miracle and Rees discuss the way that the violence and win-at-any-cost mentality of sports is used to create a certain machoism in boys, breeding a male pack mentality. They describe the way that popular culture speaks of the “character building” aspects of sports: “the ‘boys-into-men’ theme is prominent, but nothing is said about ‘girls-into-women.’ The origins of the ‘sports-builds-character’ myth reflects the historical reality of a society dominated by males. The belief that sport builds character is a relatively recent phenomenon…” (Miracle, 30) Even girls teams function as a validation of patriarchy, in that rather than value the function of females they attempt to force girls into a violent (and one might even say pathological) mindset of competition which self-defines as masculine. Schools often put intense focus on the success of their sports teams, minimalizing the success of activities which are dominated by females and non-macho males such as the theater, academic teams or activities, music activities, and so forth. Schools value sports to such a degree that the sports team gets pep rallies (in which females are celebrated only by being sexualized “cheer leaders” supporting the males) while the yearbook editors and photographers, the bake-sale leaders, the debate team victors, the theater kids and all the other non-physical participants in the school go virtually unnoticed. This creates a false value system of masculine brawn over female (and asexual) brains.
Just as importantly, the focus on competitive sports promotes racism. This may at first seem like an odd assertation, since in many schools the majority of the good players are black and thus the school is actually giving positive attention to black students. However, this is actually the precise problem which competitive sports breeds for African-Americans. Black students find themselves pigeon-holed as nothing more or less than potential athletes, and their intellectual and personal contributions are ignored or minimalized. The focus on sports, and the fact that more black students do succeed in sports than white students do, encourages black students to treat academics as “white” and sports as “black.” However, only a tiny handful of students from the entire nation (much less than one per high school class!) will ever be able to get a professional job as an athlete. Therefore black students are being encouraged to focus on entertainment of the white students rather than being encouraged to pursue learning which will make it possible for them to get real careers and a serious place in society. The same is true in colleges! An entire generation of black students is being seduced by sports to ignore the actual bounty of experience and learning in schools. As African-American activist and writer Hoberman explains: “African-American’s attachment to Sport has been diverting interest away from the life of the mind for most of this century… wildly unrealistic ambitions in black children (an improbably number of black boys expect to become professional athletes)… The exploitation of its… children by a white-dominated sports establishment.” (pp. 4)
He explains that blacks are trapped by “the world of athleticism” (Hoberman, 4) and that this is the result “of a long collaboration between blacks seeking respect and expanded opportunity and whites seeking entertainment, profit, and forms of racial reconciliation that do not challenge fundamental assumptions about racial difference…” In many ways, this seems intensely positive for the black community, for “athletic achievement has served the clan pride of African-Americans… To the point where it is embraced as a foundation of black identity…” (Hoberman, 5) However, he explains that in becoming the foundation of black identity, it works to keep black culture from achieving heights of culture and economic success.
The issue of racial exploitation is also dealt with as part of a larger financial exploitation in Wetzel and Yaeger’s book Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth. They explain the way that sports have become for more competitive at the all levels of school, and particularly high school, since the time of Michael Jordan because corporations –particularly shoe companies like Adidas and Nike, but also companies that deal in sports drinks and other produces– have been intensely pursuing young children for future contracts. “Now a young player can be slotted for a shoe company… As young as twelve years old.” (Wetzel & Yaeger, 4) in some ways, of course, individual children benefit from being so pursued. If they hit it lucky, they may be wealthy for life. However, many more will be harmed. Those who fail to make the ‘cut,’ so to speak, will find that they have emerged from years of frenzied game-playing without any skills for the real world. Many will find that they will not even have the opportunity to really learn even in college, for this corruption goes so far as try to influence youth into choosing colleges based not on academic or athletic merit but on commercial interests, “steering high school players toward colleges that were affiliated with the swoosh.” (Wetzel & Yaeger, 26) This means that many young players so steered will end up choosing a school that is not good for them personally, and still most will not end up going into profession ball games. In fact, even many professional players do not have lifetimes earnings which are higher than any other professional (such as a business man, realtor, lawyer, etc.) because career lengths are often remarkably short and opening salaries for players who are not superstars is often quite moderate, with low salaries around $300 thousand a year (the average for basketball is between $2-3 million, however this takes into account super-star salaries upwards of $20 million) and average playing time under 5 years. Certainly that’s enough for a wise investor and spendthrift to retire on, but if children are not well educated such wisdom may elude them in their early years and by the time it arrives be too late. The point here is that as corporations and schools spur thousands of children to the pursuit of ballgames (to the expense of their education), knowing perfectly well that less than one in several thousand will ever make a cent from pro-ball, they are destroying the lives of all those gamey children left behind.
Now, all of this is not to say that organized sports, even competitive organized sports, have no advantages to the student. There is something to be said for the pride which students take in their successes, and for the social acceptance thus made available to (violent) young people who might not otherwise be able to figure out how to relate to their peers. Perhaps one of the greatest advantages is that sports are a healthy activity in terms of physical exertion and muscle training. (Unfortunately, they may also lead to obesity in later life as students learn how families are supposed to be fed at a time when they are very physically active and then continue to eat in this fatty fashion when they have become sedentary adults, simply because it is how they always ate when they were at their healthiest) for those who actively pursue continued activity as adults, this early athleticism is a huge advantage. Additionally, sports may form something of a bonding ritual that brings schools and communities together. “For much of the country, high school sport in general, and high school football in particular, is a series of ritual events that makes real a set of shared beliefs about particular ways of thinking and feeling. these myths, as we call them, are cultural blueprints for understanding our society…” (Miracle & Rees, 13)
Despite these advantages, however, it seems evident that competitive sports in high school are not good either for the athletes, for the non-athletic students, or for the community. It would be far better for students to participate in physical activity and sports in a fun and less-competitive atmosphere, in which all students who wanted to participate could join the teams and having fun remained the central goal of the event. Training the body is just as important as training the mind, but the modern competitive intermural sports system is not the way to achieve this educational goal. The importance of using one’s youth to have fun, rather than to take part in a cut-throat world of ritual competition is even becoming clear to some national teams. “Every boy who plays high school basketball has dreams of playing in the NBA. Now the league is offering some blunt career advice: Not so fast. Take some time. Grow up.” (San Angelo…, 1)
David, Paulo. Human Rights in Youth Sport: A critical review of children’s rightrs in competitive sports. London: Routledge 2003
DeMoulin, Donald. “Examining the impact of extra-curricular activities on the personal development of 149 high school seniors” Journal of Instructional Psychology, Dec, 2002 [archived at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FCG/is_4_29/ai_95148392]
Hoberman, John. Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race. New York: Mariner Books, 1997
Sleek, S. “High school athletes get good grades, but are more drawn to alcohol and drugs, study suggests” APA Monitor. Vol 29; # 8. August 1998 [archived at http://www.apa.org/monitor/aug98/drug.html]
Lindsay, Jeff. “Proof by Spoof: Are Your Children in a Cult? http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/response/general/lindsay_proofspoof.htm
Mint Museum. “The Sport of Life and Death: The MesoAmerican Ballgame” http://www.ballgame.org
Miracle, Andrew & Rees, Roger. Lessons of the Locker Room. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994.
Wetzel, Dan & Yaeger, Don. Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth. New York: Warner Books, 2000.
San Angelo Standard-Times. “New NBA deal will delay jump of high schoolers to pro-ranks” JUNE 27, 2005. available online at http://nieonline.com/sanangelostandardtimes/plus.cfm
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