kigoa football on green grass during daytime
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The young man was doing summer landscape maintenance at a local public playing field. That is, he was mowing a huge patch of grass. He shut off his machine before coming over and say hello. I was taking a summer course in a nearby building. I was charmed that he remembered his English teacher from a few years before.

He talked about how a fall sports injury kept him out of play most of his senior year, how hard that was to be sidelined, and how he had tried to talk to his coach about helping him with post-high school plans. And then abruptly, he looked down, was silent, and seemed almost to shiver. “Coach didn’t have time for me. He didn’t care about me except as a player.” He looked at me. “I just realized that . . . and it . . . it makes me so angry.”

A review of literature has led a physician to declare that playing team sports may protect players from future depression. She found: “Among those with ACEs [physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, parental alcohol misuse, parental incarceration, and living with a single parent], team sports participation during adolescence was significantly associated with lower odds of receiving a diagnosis of depression (unadjusted rate, 16.8% vs 22.0%).” Dr. Eaasterlin describes one barrier to participation as the monetary cost of playing, another not considered might be inconvenience. Easterlin assumes that playing team sports teaches teamwork and that this is the reason adults who have played sports are less depressed in their 20s. There are a few leaps in her reasoning, but perhaps she is right. She further argues that pay-to-play (the costs associated with school team sports) interferes with the potential positive outcomes of team sports. It is well to recall that team sports require more than money. They also require traveling and a great deal of time.

Is teamwork really the key and is that key derived only from sport? Her study didn’t find a benefit from other activities. Can we assume that money keeps kids out of sport or that money is not itself an key issue? Despite measures taken to ensure a balance, can we assume that these self-reported measures are representative or even accurate? What else is at play here: privilege, money, family support, time free from family obligations and work, social status in the school, coach and teacher bias? Time?

When I was teaching, I saw my students for no more than five or six hours a week. Coaches of some sports, such as football, worked with players for up to twenty. Students were always excused from academic subjects to attend sporting events, even as spectators. While students were required to be teaching at least most of their classes to play, teachers were routinely called upon to rearrange academic obligations to permit extracurricular involvement. Administrators will always say that academics come first, but in practice this is almost never the case. Involvement is emphasized even over studying from the time students enter high school. Teachers and classroom aides are hired because they can coach, and coaches were ferociously protective of their access to players.

As an example: Football players in my yearbook class were forbidden to miss practice in order to attend a mid-week day-long yearbook conference and workshop. One boy said, “Don’t worry, I’ll go.” But hadn’t his coach refused to play him on Friday if he missed a mid-week practice? The senior smiled. “Coach will play me, he has to play me.” That strong varsity player was right. What lesson did he learn?

Many studies on the impact of childhood participation in team sports suggest the impact of youth sports programs is not entirely positive. Participation in team sports do not lead to healthier adult behavior, according to a broad study by UC Berkeley. Only individual sports such as running, tennis, and swimming predict physically active adult behavior. For some players, team sports lead to disastrous experiences of bullying and and even physical injury—I well recall, in the small rural high school, the summer when four boys had broken bones from three weeks of pre-season play. Every year I had students who required surgery to repair sports injuries. There is also a well-documented pattern of abusive domestic behavior on the part of varsity high school and college athletes (especially football and basketball), and an unfortunate assumption of privilege on the part of some players.

As to team work. Maybe. But that notion of team sports building teamwork was used to marginalize women’s participation in many professions and careers in the days before Title IX. Imagine our surprise when objective studies found that woman overall tend to be better at teamwork regardless of sport experiences. Creating a mixed-gender engineering team, for example, led to stronger overall performance because women on the team advocated for collaboration and cooperation and, you might say, team work. This had nothing to do with sport.

Choir, drama, orchestra, gaming, and yearbook and newspaper classes—all these can teach teamwork, too. Over the years, many enthusiastic teen athletes have tried to prove that their sport was necessary to success in life in their research papers. It’s not true. Choir, drama, orchestra, gaming, and yearbook and newspaper classes are not necessary either, but like athletics, sometimes they help. Participants want very much to believe that their great experience is necessary and necessarily good.

Sports teach competition. They teach about winning and losing. For many young people, they provide much-needed incentive to be physically active and cooperative. They often provide access to coaches providing a stable and supportive adult influence. But they are not an unmixed blessing. For all the good they do, they also provide opportunities for distraction from education, injury, and both bullying and elitism.

This doctor found what she wanted to find. She may not be wrong about the impact of sports, but my own forty-year experience in education and a great many studies suggest she may not be entirely right.

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