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Professor Blames High School Sports for the Demise of Academics

When we look back to see who's to blame for the downfall of U.S. public education, will we be pointing fingers at ESPN?

Steven Conn, a professor of history at Ohio State University, published an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week suggesting that the growing importance of high school sports has distracted some districts and students from focusing on school's main priority: academics.

"The growth of high school athletics over the past generation has necessarily meant fewer resources devoted to academics, especially in the zero-sum budgetary environment of so many school districts," Conn wrote. "How many other educational systems pay for sports out of their education funds?"

Conn highlighted the $60 million high school football stadium in Allen, Texas, as an example of the exorbitance surrounding high school sports. It's not just in Texas, either; the St. Louis-based Pattonville school district started work last year on $18 million worth of upgrades to its athletic facilities over the next two years.

As Conn notes later in his piece, Finland, which is often recognized internationally for its successful education system, doesn't even have schools that offer team sports. Coincidence? Or cause-and-effect?

Compare that with the United States, where a high school junior graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2002, and you'll begin to understand the importance of youth sports in each country's collective psyche. ESPN has an entire offshoot of its website currently dedicated to high school sports.

Conn also points out that as high school athletics grow more important, student-athletes spend more and more time in practice and at games, giving them less time for schoolwork.

"To balance the time necessary for sports with academic demands, how many students are opting for easier classes," Conn wonders? "How many districts are not offering a more rigorous curriculum because there is not enough student demand for AP calc but plenty for JV football? To what extent has the growth in seriousness of high-school athletics contributed to the general dumbing down of public education?"

That point got some backing from ESPN analyst and former Duke basketball player Jay Bilas on Thursday, according to the Chronicle's Players blog. At the annual conference of the College Sport Research Institute, Bilas spoke out against the NCAA's academic progress rate, saying, "I would have chosen different classes if there were an APR in place. I wouldn't have wanted to put my teammates at risk."

Remember, the NCAA further toughened those academic standards back in October, putting a postseason ban on the table for teams that couldn't reach new academic benchmarks. The men's basketball team at the University of Connecticut has been declared ineligible for the 2013 postseason for failing to meet those higher standards.

It begs the question, as ProBasketballTalk's Rob Dauster addressed earlier this week: Will these changes bring about more academic fraud, too?

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