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Debate Surfaces on Place of High School Athletics

From guest blogger Hannah Rose Sacks

Are high school athletics a thing of the past? Former college basketball coach Len Stevens believes so.

Stevens believes high school athletics' role has changed dramatically from what he sees as the original intent of providing an inclusive supplement to the educational experience, reports the Reno Gazette-Journal. Specifically, Stevens asserts that:

• Each passing year, fewer and fewer students attend their schools' games. A recent study showed fewer than 10 percent attend games, Stevens said.
• At almost every school, principals say their greatest headache is dealing with parents who have complaints about their child's experience in sports.

While Stevens thinks there is no longer a place for athletics in high schools, he does not want to end play at the high school level.

Instead, Stevens suggests that the United States should move to the European model of exclusively offering club sports. By removing sports from high schools, the emphasis in high school can be refocused on academics, Stevens believes.

Club sports have gained popularity across the United States in recent years, specifically for the higher level of competition. Stevens proposed a tax subsidy to ensure students of all socioeconomic backgrounds would be able to play club sports, where the cost is often much higher.

Stevens' position has drawn criticism. Executive Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations Bob Gardner wrote one response.

Gardner believes there are 7.6 million reasons to keep athletics in high schools—one for every one of the over 7.6 million high school student athletes.

"What Mr. Stevens probably doesn't know is that many of those countries employing the 'European model' would trade their model in an instant for the education-based philosophy of high school sports in the United States," says Gardner. Having worked with educators from across the world at the International Olympic Academy, Gardner tells of his experience hearing a "universal wish" that other nations' athletic programs could be more like the United States'.

Gardner rejects Stevens' claim that removing athletics would refocus high schools on academics. Without athletics, Gardner asserts, "the focus would not be on education. The focus would be on trying to locate students who abruptly left school—dropouts—when sports were taken away."

Club sports also focus solely on athletics as opposed to high school sports, where students learn much more, in Gardner's view. He asserts that while teacher-coaches have dwindled, which Stevens highlights as well, most coaches are required to complete an education course. As a result, high school sports emphasize preparation for life after school and team building—something he says club sports miss.

Another missing component from Stevens' argument is the factor of inclusivity, says Gardner. Not only are club teams exclusive, wanting only the best athletes and charging expensive fees, but the community loses out as well. An NFHS survey found that more than 510 million people attended high school sporting events during the 2009-10 school year.

Both Stevens and Gardner agree that sports have the potential to play an important role in high school students' lives. The question remains whether that role belongs in schools or separate. What do you think?

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