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Experts Debate Role of Sports in U.S. High Schools

Do sports belong in U.S. high schools? That depends on whom you ask.

On Tuesday evening, the New America Foundation held a panel to discuss the pros and cons of sports in U.S. high schools.

Amanda Ripley, the author of the new book The Smartest Kids in the World, and Kevin Carey, the director of the New America Foundation's education policy program, argued for kicking sports out of high school. On the "Leave sports alone!" side were Kerry J. Donley, a former athletic director of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and Louisa Thomas, a sportswriter for Grantland.com and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

You may recognize Ripley's name from a recent piece in The Atlantic, which examined what role high school sports might play in the country's dismal academic international standing. Her central premise in the article revolved around a cost-benefit analysis of school sports, both in terms of time and money.

To kick off the panel, Ripley echoed many of the themes she raised in her Atlantic piece, including how one Texas community boosted student achievement by eliminating sports entirely. She also read a few letters that she received since the piece came out, including one from a California administrator who claimed to have spent more time on athletics than anything else. In another letter, a former high school football player from Pennsylvania admitted that he regretted playing football, as he currently suffers from memory loss and post-concussion issues. He said the time he spent playing football should have instead been spent on his academics.

Donley took the stage next to extol the virtues of youth sports, both physical and intangible. In his opinion, the physical benefits of sports aren't the main selling point. Instead, he said that the "true benefits [of youth sports] are the life lessons that translate to success as adults," such as competition, teamwork, and discipline. He singled out girls as a population of students who especially benefit from youth sports, something which advocates for female athletes have previously echoed. Some students also remain in school because of sports, he noted.

Carey, who played sports every semester in high school, admitted that his athletic participation was nothing but a positive experience for him. "But at the same time, there were very true tradeoffs between sports and academics" at the high school he attended, he said. He's not exactly convinced that's the case today. Carey didn't say that sports were bad, necessarily, but wondered whether they're worth "the relative level of money and time and attention" that schools put into them.  

Thomas closed off the opening arguments by recounting her trip to Aurora, Colo., last spring to watch Olympic champion Missy Franklin at her last home swim meet. She spoke with Franklin's teammates to see what it was like to swim alongside an Olympic gold medalist and was blown away by how much the opportunity meant to them. One girl in particular, who wasn't planning on continuing her athletic career in college, told Thomas that regardless, she was "always going to be a swimmer." It led Thomas to start believing that instead of cutting sports, schools might want to consider how to increase participation.

From there, the panel opened up into a free-for-all, back-and-forth discussion. A few highlights, via the @NewAmerica Twitter feed:

Which position do you find yourself siding with? Chime in below in the comments section.

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