How Athletics and Education are Mutually Exclusive

I love this time of year. This is the time of year where the snow begins to melt and the sun starts to shine, when it is no longer dark outside at 5pm, and when my utility bills starts to creep down to an affordable price. Additionally, last Thursday’s commencement of the Division I NCAA Basketball Tournament began what is the best four weeks to be a sports fan each year. Over the course of the next 30 days March Madness will ensue, the Major League Baseball season will start, as will the NHL playoffs, in a normal year NFL free agency would be in full swing, and my once again relevant New York Knicks will begin their journey in the NBA playoffs. While we as a nation prepare to spend countless hours in-front of the television idolizing our sports icons, we must also be aware of the effect the multi-billion dollar enterprise of American sports has on our nations youth, particularly in poor urban areas.

As Jonathan Kozol illustrates throughout his book Savage Inequalities (1991), youth growing up in poor urban areas are often told their only way to a better life is through athletics. Children are told that if they practice hard enough, they will earn a scholarship to college and shortly after be paid millions of dollars to play professionally. For any youth, specifically for one from lesser means, this dream is a difficult one to let go. Yet, the reality is that very few high school athletes get the opportunity to play in college, and even fewer move on to play professionally. Let us take basketball for example. According to the NCAA, 3.1 percent of student-athletes on their high school basketball team go on to play at any level of college; and only 1.2% of student-athletes on their college basketball team go on to play in the NBA. This means that only 0.03% (3 in 10,000) of student-athletes on their high school basketball team will go on to play in the NBA(1). Even if they make it into the NBA, most will not have sustained careers. In 1999, the average career length of an NBA player fewer than 5 years(2). Even when a student earns an athletic scholarship, it is unlikely to cover the expenses of college. In 2008, the average athletic scholarship was less than $11,000 a year(3). The truth is that a college freshman is 22 times more likely to be the recipient of an academic scholarship than he or she is to have been awarded an athletic scholarship. Despite the fact that we often tell kids that their best way to a sound education and a better life is through athletics, this is not the case for the overwhelming majority.

What is even more troubling than the message we send our youth about the possibilities of athletics, is the disconnect between athletics and education within schools. When schools face budget cuts, physical education, recess, and inter-school athletics are often times among the first programs cut(5). For example, South Carolina just proposed a 15% cut to state funds for physical education in school(6). Additionally, according to the American Heart Association, only 71 percent of elementary schools nationally have recess for students in K-5, a number that is drastically lower in urban areas (28% in the city of Rochester)(7). This is troubling not only because of the health and educational benefits youth reap from physical activity, but because of the message it sends to youth about the lack of association between school and athletics. The message that we are sending to our kids, specifically in urban areas, is that athletics and academics are mutually exclusive. Our priorities are broken. We are telling our students that athletics have no place in school, but that athletics are the only way to success. Given this contradiction, why should we expect many of our students to value education? If we are telling our urban youth the only way to a better life is through athletics, but we are not providing the opportunity for athletics at school, can we really expect them to value school?

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Jeremy Friedman

Author: Jeremy Friedman

Jeremy is a full-time master’s student in the Educational Policy program. A native of Westchester, New York Jeremy graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in Economics and a minor in American Sign Language in May 2008.

2 thoughts on “How Athletics and Education are Mutually Exclusive”

  1. Thank you for these insightful comments, Jeremy.  I did not realize students were 22 times more likely to receive an academic scholarship than an athletic one.  That is significant!  This a message that needs to be shared with families and educators alike.  I guess part of the problem is the allure of major sports stars and their backstories.  It is attractive to think of rising above your situation through a life made playing the sport you love! 

    The FLHSA HealthiKids campaign has a web petition dedicated to the incorporation of recess in Rochester City Schools: Encourage others to get involved!

  2. Interesting topic Jeremy, one with many subtopics that could be discussed at length.  I think a major issue here that you alluded to but didn’t mention was how students and parents perceive the role sports play in any person’s life, not just urban or student athletes at division 1 colleges.  Sports for 99% of the population should be a means of enhancing team building skills, social skills, and exercise.  These should be the emphasis at the youth and high school level.  For 99% of people, athletics should be emphasized as an addition to one’s life, not the focus of it.  I think it’s really the responsibility of parents and coaches to teach this perception at an early age that sports are an important part of life, but are usually not the main objective of our careers.  Parents and coaches should harp the statistic you mentioned that students are more likely to receive academic scholarships.  Even if an athlete is gifted enough to gain athletic scholarships, that should not hinder their efforts to also shoot for academic scholarships.  While every person is in a unique circumstance, no one can be hurt by focusing on their education.  While someone like Lebron James skipped college because of his opportunity, that is by far the exception.  In his case, he knew he had a lot more to gain from going pro and wanted to develop his NBA career early, but that is the exception.  For 99.9% of the world, an athletic career is a lot less certain, and having a solid education will never be a hindrance to their life.  That should be emphasized at a young age.

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