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The Bizarre Disdain for High School Sports

I found a lot of things peculiar about the reactions to last week's nauseating pay-for-admissions scandal, but I suspect readers have already tired of the subject (if you're curious about my take, you can find it here or here). But the one thing I do want to touch upon today is the weird way that evidence of corrupt college coaches, sleazoid middlemen, and asleep-at-the-switch admissions offices fueled broadsides fulminating generally at scholastic sports—as if millions of high school athletes and thousands of coaches are implicated by the malfeasance of coaches and staff busy raking in bribes at elite colleges.

This all felt remarkably familiar. High school sports, for reasons that utterly escape me, have become a frequent target. As Amy Cummings and I put it in a column at National Review last month:

School sports have served as a convenient punching bag for advocates and academics who tend to regard athletics as a cultural backwater. Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the "social change" organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, has made "The Case against High-School Sports" in The Atlantic, blaming sports for mediocre U.S. performance on international tests. And Brookings Institution education scholar Mike Hansen has lamented that sports are "distracting us from our schools' main goals."

Meanwhile, for more than a few progressives, sports seemingly represent toxic masculinity, problematic notions of competition, and gender segregation.

Amidst such critiques, the manifold benefits of school sports can easily get lost. Especially strange is the short shrift given to the role that athletics can play when it comes to supporting academic success and forging character. That presumably has something to do with why the National Federation of State High School Associations reports that more than half of high schoolers participated in school sports in 2015, up from 40 percent in 1980.

If you're used to negative portrayals of school sports, you may be wondering about this casual assertion of manifold benefits. "Do you have any evidence for this claim?" some may ask. Well, a quick perusal of some of the most widely cited studies on high school sports tells a pretty compelling story.  

As Cummings and I wrote:

Despite assertions that sports distract from academics, there's evidence that they can just as readily complement the scholastic mission of schools. A widely cited 2003 study by Oxford University's Herbert Marsh and the University of Sydney's Sabina Kleitman in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology reported, using nationally representative longitudinal data, that participating in high-school sports had a positive effect on academics in high school and college. Students who played high-school sports got better grades, selected more challenging courses, had higher educational and occupational aspirations, were more likely to enroll in college, and had higher levels of educational attainment. What's more, these results held up across socioeconomic status, gender, race, and ability.

A decade ago, in the Economics of Education Review, Mathematica's Stephen Lipscomb used a fixed-effects strategy to test whether participating in high-school sports affected academic performance. He found that sports participation associated with a 2 percent increase in math and science test scores and a 5 percent increase in bachelor's-degree attainment expectations. Other scholarship has reported that participating in high-school sports significantly reduces a student's likelihood of dropping out of high school and, for young women, that it is associated with higher odds of college completion.

The point is not to make outrageous claims on behalf of school sports. These studies all have methodological limitations, researchers have devoted less energy to examining sports than one would think, and we should not treat the results as gospel. Meanwhile, some benefits are due to self-selection, poorly run programs can breed destructive behavior, and there are times and places when sports can clash with a school's academic mission. None of these cautions, however, should excuse the pooh-poohing of school sports by zealots, agenda-driven advocates, or journalists peddling salacious tales.

The enthusiastic embrace of social and emotional learning we see today makes it an especially odd time to see disdain visited upon school sports—when athletics boast a long and impressive track record of cultivating just those things. If educators and reformers are seeking ways to promote values such as self-control, responsibility, and good citizenship, they should ignore the snark and keep in mind that high schools already house established programs with a track record of doing just that.

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