Losing the sports game

March 04, 1993

There are many ways to gauge the pervasive crisis in American education, but here's one that ought to grab attention -- the alarming decline in school sports. From football, basketball and baseball to track and field, wrestling and swimming, sports activities are beset by budget cuts, a shortage of coaches and declining participation. Since 1978, participation in boys' athletics has declined by 22 percent, despite dramatic increases in sports like soccer and lacrosse. Participation among girls has dropped by 7 percent in the same period, after a sharp increase earlier in the 1970s.

There are many smaller symptoms of the decline of school sports programs, but a vivid one is evident in the fact that in 1992, no American boy set a national record in outdoor track. That has happened only three times since record-keeping began in 1915, and the last time was 1935, during the depths of the Depression. Unlike football or basketball, accomplishments in track and field can be measured against fixed standards and compared from generation to generation. Using that gauge, the problem isn't that current records represent the outer limits of human potential. Records are still being set in events like sprints, where innate ability counts more than expert coaching, practice time or access to facilities and equipment.

To some extent, the decline in resources devoted to boys' sports reflects efforts to shore up girls' programs in order to comply with federal mandates to provide athletic opportunities for both sexes. But that in itself cannot explain the larger trend -- record-setting by girls is also slowing perceptibly.

Many schools with tight budgets and no full-time physical education teachers are hiring "walk-on" or "rent-a-coaches" -- often parents or former athletes. That sounds fine on paper, but in reality good coaches act as stabilizing influences. They command respect not always accorded to other teachers, and that can make a world of difference in schools plagued by drugs, gangs or random violence. One sports commentator who began his career covering high school sports maintains that a reliable way to judge a school is by the quality of its sports programs. Why? High-quality sports means that a school has coaches who are respected by students and whose presence throughout the day provides a valuable model of discipline.

Critics are fond of charging that too many schools seem to live and die for championship sports teams to the neglect of reading, writing and arithmetic. But if the current trend continues, critics won't even have sports trophies to blame for the failure of schools to educate America's young.

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