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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On Hope and Motivation

n16504954_31418052_1609Hope.  What does that word actually mean?  I know it is important to have.  I know our President based his whole campaign around the concept.  However, I have never really had a good understanding of the true meaning of hope.

In class (Counseling Theory and Practice II), we recently discussed the meaning of hope.  Hope is active engagement with the possibilities of the future.  In other words, when you are hopeful, you are not just aware of all the possibilities the future holds, but you are also taking active steps to achieve these possibilities.  It is our job as school counselors to instill this kind of hope in the hearts of those students we work with.

On a related note, I recently learned that in certain neighborhoods in Rochester, there are higher numbers of youth than there are adults, because the adults are either in jail, on probation, or on parole. This means that there are kids running around with little adult supervision.  People, especially children, have a basic psychological need for love, understanding, and relatedness.  If kids in Rochester have little adult supervision, it also means these kids are less likely to have a consistent source of unconditional love and warmth.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Western New York School Counselors Consortium.  There, Dr. Richard Ryan, Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, & Education at the University of Rochester, spoke about facilitating motivation and wellness in students.  When student’s basic psychological needs for autonomy (behavior is volitional), competence (sense that one is effective), and relatedness (feeling connected to others) are not met, these students become unmotivated and develop insecurities.  Kids who do not receive consistent love and warmth from an adult in their lives are at risk to develop these insecurities and lose hope in what they’re doing.  This is exactly what we do NOT want to happen.

So what can we do as parents, teachers, and counselors?  We can offer our support, understanding, and commitment.  We can help them achieve a sense of autonomy and competence in what they do.  We can tell these kids that they have something to hope for, that we know they can achieve it, and that we will be behind them all the way to help them get there.

For more information, see the Self-Determination Theory website or see the work of Richard Ryan, Ph.D.

Addressing the nation’s schoolchildren: What is the real message?

Amidst all of the thoughtful conversations about the President’s recent address to the Nation’s schoolchildren, I have felt a strange sense of isolation and alienation.  While folks are making cogent and important arguments about whether the speech went too far or not far enough, or whether parents are justified in demanding that their children be shielded from the potential indoctrination hiding in the dark corners of the speech, I find myself fighting a sense of rage that takes my thoughts away from the discussion at hand.  Why rage?  Because in spite of the intellectual interest I might have in these discussions, I am led to a deeper emotional dimension. I am anticipating the crushing disappointment and internalized powerlessness that may be experienced by brown and black skinned schoolchildren who saw in the election of Barack Obama a shining, liberatory moment in a history of oppression.  I have other questions I would like answered.

What are these children thinking as they see their democratically elected symbol of hope and transformation scrutinized, vilified, publicly humiliated, and systematically disempowered?  What can they be thinking when they see, as I did, a mother on television openly weeping because she feared that her children would be damaged by the words of a man intent on indoctrinating her children with ideas that fall short of her notion of ethical or moral integrity?  What is the message being sent by another television clip of an enraged man intent on pulling his child out of school to shield the child from hateful propaganda being spread by this frightening man we call “President”?

What does it mean for children when someone in their own image is elected to the most powerful office in the land but is still not able to garner the admiration, respect and support of the Nation?  What does it mean that even after making the impossible possible with the election of Barack Obama, that justice, mutual respect, and a sense of common good is once again eclipsed with politically-motivated tools of distrust and scorn?  

I think that pondering the content of the speech and the appropriateness of the presidential address for schoolchildren is taking our eye off the ball.  I think it is more important for us to understand how children and young adults who feel a strong sense of kinship with Mr. Obama will internalize the wrath directed at our President.  Will they feel like they are not entitled to respect, that their voice does not deserve to be heard, or that hope is hollow?