MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, as most students are back in the swing of things at school, we decided to talk about high school sports. And as any football or soccer or hockey mom or dad knows all too well, athletics can be an enormous commitment for children and their families - hours spent at practice and games, money for equipment and a lot of gas tanks. For many students, sports are as big a part of the American school experience as math or history class.
But writer Amanda Ripley says it might be time to rethink that. Amanda Ripley's been looking at the question of student achievement around the world, and as part of that inquiry, she looked at the role of high school sports. In a recent story for The Atlantic titled "The Case Against High-School Sports," Ripley writes that Americans routinely spend more tax dollars per high school athlete than per high school math student, and far more on high school sports than most developed countries. And so she suggests it's not a coincidence that many of those countries are flying past the U.S. in education rankings as a result. And Amanda Ripley is with us now. She's author of the book "The Smartest Kids in the World," and a mom of one son. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
AMANDA RIPLEY: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Also with us are two of our regular contributors to our parenting conversations. Dani Tucker is founder of a fitness company and a mom of two, including a son who played high school football. And Glenn Ivey is an attorney and father of six, including five boys, several of whom played competitive sports. Welcome back to each of you.
GLENN IVEY: Thank you.
DANI TUCKER: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Amanda Ripley, let's start with you. You write, quote, sports are embedded in American schools in a way that they are not almost anywhere else. What's the problem with that?
RIPLEY: I didn't think there was one and then when I started following American teenagers to other countries that have much higher performing education systems, these kids noticed it right away. They noticed sports are not a big deal here. And kids play sports but it's separate from school. And when I surveyed hundreds of exchange students who had come and lived and gone to school in U.S., nine out of 10 of them said that sports were a bigger deal to American kids than kids back home.
And I think that's just representative of a larger kind of fog about what school is for. So I'm not against sports, but to combine it the way that we have with the mission of school, the way that we have principals who have to think about whether a teacher can coach before they hire that teacher, is a really unusual dynamic that's worth maybe reconsidering given how much our kids need to know to thrive in the modern economy.
MARTIN: You've cited a number of case studies and one, in particular, really fascinated me of a rural school district in Texas that was really on the verge of being closed both for financial mismanagement and for academic lack of achievement. And the superintendent there made what was considered a radical decision to shut the high school sports program so that he could reprogram those dollars to other things, but he noticed a number of other things. He said that behavior in the classroom improved, there were fewer fights, there was more sort of student engagement. Why would that be?
RIPLEY: It's surprising and it's hard to disentangle.
MARTIN: It's because it's the kind of thing that I think most people would think is completely counterintuitive...
MARTIN: ...Because one of the reasons people say they want their kids to play sports is so that their time will be organized. They'll be tired at the end of the day. They won't have time to be causing ruckus, so.
RIPLEY: Right. No, and obviously, exercise, running around is very important to learning, for sure. No question about it. Where you do it, how you do it, how big of a priority it is, that's the place where the conversation should be happening. What that superintendent did, which no one had thought to do before, was to sit down and actually add up the cost, financial and actually mental, of sports. And he found that they were spending, in this little tiny town, $1,300 per football player each season and $618 per math student. So there was a almost 2x - more than 2x difference between what they were spending. And also he wanted to send a signal - in the midst of other changes he was making - that the number one priority was for kids to do rigorous work in math, reading and science and other things, and that came before football.
MARTIN: Dani, talk about - why don't you weigh in on this. What's your reaction when you hear this as a person who's - you know, you have a career in fitness at the moment. I mean, it's a second career for you, and you also had a son who played football. And I think you thought it was a really positive experience. What's your take on this?
TUCKER: Definitely a positive experience. I mean, for us, to me, sports is education. It is a valuable part of our education system in America. In other countries, they don't have the opportunity to be professional athletes like you do here. So for our kids, pursuing athletic sports was a career move for them, as well because they're trying to be - many of them - professional athletes. In this country, you can do that, and it's a very lucrative career, you know. So, you know, to me, first of all, that's one point, you know.
The second point also is - like we did - we used education to add - I mean, sports to lure our kids into education, OK, because we took the opportunity in a lot of our little leagues to not just tutor the kids who were suffering, but to use it - I watch a lot of the coaches use their sporting events to teach their kids math, science, especially, like, when they're learning their playbook. There's a lot of education that is involved in sports. You don't just get out there and play. You have to learn your craft, just like a doctor has to learn his craft or a lawyer has to learn his craft. An athlete has to learn their craft. So I think, sometimes, we don't highlight the education that is in sports. We don't talk about that. We always talk about a lot of the negative - the concussions - but there are a lot of - athletes have to be smart in their field.
MARTIN: Sure, OK. Glenn, what about you? You've got a big focus group because you've got kids - six kids and five boys - and they've all got very different interests, and they all played very different sports. What's your take on this?
IVEY: Well, you know, I had a mixed reaction. I was an - actually, believe it or not, I was an athlete in school, too, high school at least. And, I found it to be...
MARTIN: We actually all were. Everybody in this conversation was, including Amanda, who played high school soccer.
IVEY: Yeah. Soccer, yeah. I found it to be kind of a mixed bag. I mean, on the one hand, you know, there was certainly a mixed response to, you know, the guy on your team - he's taking calculus - you know, was treated as unusual. And there were times when there was a pressure to set academics to the side as opposed to, you know, focusing on the sport and giving the team the time that it wanted, as well. On the other hand, I agree with Dani about - you know, Bill Bradley wrote a book called "Values of the Game," and I think that that - and it's true in Amanda's article, as well, where she talks about it.
There are a lot of positive things - teamwork, perseverance, you know, the automatic lessons that come from sports that are hard to replicate other places. But, you know, I think overall, there probably is - especially in - we should talk about different types of schools, too - but there certainly is an over emphasis on sports in some ways.
MARTIN: In the black community - I mean, why don't we just say what we really mean here - is that, you know, also there's a racial component to it, too, where I think a lot of people feel that black boys, in particular - black boys are steered into sports, sometimes to the detriment of their achievement in other areas, and I think you also see with Latino boys. In certain sports, I think people feel that that is the case. Boys in general, boys of particular backgrounds, in particular...
IVEY: I actually think it's broader than that.
IVEY: And, you know, you go to the Texas schools that she referenced, but, you know, your "Friday Night Lights" scenarios, those are predominantly white communities, frequently working-class, blue-class communities. Those kids are just as focused on football as the African-American kids in Prince George's County or whatever, and for some of the reasons that Dani mentioned. And those are the places where I think we really have to make sure we're making - we're emphasizing the academic component, as well as the athletic component.
MARTIN: Dani, what about that? I mean, do you ever feel - I'll let you sneeze.
TUCKER: Thank you.
MARTIN: Well, what about that? I mean, do you think that that is true? Is that possible that the kind of the emphasis on sports kind of steers certain kids to think that that is their destiny?
TUCKER: Well, yeah, of course. I mean, look at who their role models are - the Michael Vick's and RGIII's. Of course it does. They grew up watching that. Who was a lot of our role models - the Doug Williams'. So, I mean, again, yeah, that's their environment. They didn't grow up in a middle-class, white environment where their role model was, you know, someone else, you know. So of course it does because that is their environment. And you tend to gravitate, you know, to what you see and what is your environment. I mean, many of them didn't know they could be president until they saw a black man. So of course.
MARTIN: One other point I wanted to make, though. You made the point that you felt that the school sports experience helped build teamwork among the parents...
TUCKER: Oh, most definitely.
MARTIN: ...As a community building thing. You felt that that was one benefit that people don't often talk about. Tell a little bit about that.
TUCKER: Again, especially for us as a black community, most of our kids they want to be, you know, athletes. You know, that's the first thing they think. The minority think doctor and lawyer, but we do have them out there, as well. So as parents, again, we can't reinvent the wheel. So what do we do, we're going to make the best of what we have. All right. We're going to get together and tutor these kids then so that their academic is at the same level, and that's about using your village in a proper way.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about whether high schools place too much emphasis on sports. I'm joined by parents - our regular contributors to our parenting conversations - Dani Tucker and Glenn Ivey. Also with us, Amanda Ripley, who wrote a piece titled "The case against high-school sports" for The Atlantic. Amanda, can we go back to this question of, is it the dollars that is a course of concern? You said that there's - the investment, the level of investment in high school sports is such that people don't even think about it. It's almost invisible. So is it the dollars that concerns you or is it the brain space or both? Like the headspace, the cultural room.
RIPLEY: Watching and hanging out with students in these other countries, particularly American students, made me realize how much kids pick up on signals - signals about what is important. And when we say education is important - we say that a lot, right - but we don't back it up very often the way these other countries are. Most countries don't back it up, but a few countries do. And I will tell you, the kids that I met in Finland and Korea knew about failure, they knew about teamwork, they knew about resilience and grit, and they had to learn that in the classroom with doing very rigorous work with incredibly well-trained teachers. Not everything was perfect and they did play, they did play sports on their own every day in pickup games and in, you know, rec centers. But there was this very clear signal about what school was for and what would matter to you over the course of your life most.
MARTIN: What's your idea? What's your better idea?
RIPLEY: Yeah. I think it should be separate from school with some limitations. There are schools that are doing this already - very few - but there are schools that are trying to put boundaries on the sports that they have within the school.
MARTIN: Give an example.
RIPLEY: OK. BASIS Public Charter schools, which is mostly in Arizona but also they have one in D.C. and one in Texas. They had decided early on that exercise was really important but that football was very expensive and consuming. It had a way of consuming the attention of everyone in the building. So there is no tackle football at BASIS. But any other sport a kid wants to play, they will start up that sport for you. So it's not competitive to join.
So they have a pretty high take-up rate as a result of that. But they join leagues that don't let you travel outside of the county, so kids don't miss class for games. They have all these kind of little fences that they've built around sports to keep them contained. And they find, as the founder of the schools told me, the problem with sports is once you combine it with academics, it starts to take over. So you have to be constantly vigilant to control it and make sure you're sending kids a message about what's going to serve their interests for decades to come.
MARTIN: What about Dani's idea, though, that - Dani's point that, you know, sports is an important industry in this. And while it is true that only a fraction of kids are going to make it to the pros, there are - I mean, a tiny fraction - the fact is that it is an opportunity in this country. This is a very big country with lot's of different sports leagues. It is a career for many, many people.
RIPLEY: I wish...
MARTIN: ...And they also get - there are college scholarships that do result from that.
RIPLEY: Yeah, you know what percentage of American college students get athletic scholarships?
MARTIN: Let's hear it.
RIPLEY: Two percent. So this is a lottery ticket that we are selling these kids. I wish it were lucrative for more kids. That would be awesome. It is not. And so they find out eventually. I can't tell you, I'm starting to get e-mails off this story. I'm getting a lot of angry e-mails, as you might imagine, but I'm also getting e-mails from guys who are saying, do you know how much I put into football in high school, and I think back on it and I think, my God, I think of the lost opportunity and it's heartbreaking.
MARTIN: Your son is still little. He's not old enough to be facing this dilemma. But has this changed the way you think you'll steer him in terms of what his activities will be?
RIPLEY: He loves sports. You know, he thinks he's going to be a professional soccer player. And every day I tell him, no, you're not, you know, but he loves it. And I think it's important that he run around and we do that outside of school. And, you know, I'm sure it'll get more challenging to keep that balance as he gets older but, you know, I feel like if we're not engaging kids in school - and I know that's hard and I know we're not - that's the problem to fix.
MARTIN: Dani, what do you think about that?
TUCKER: America is a lottery ticket. For the 2 percent that make it in, that's exactly why we're here because this is place where you can do that. See in Finland, you don't have that 2 percent. In Korea, you don't have that 2 percent. That's exactly why we're are.
RIPLEY: They have professional sports all over the world.
TUCKER: Well, what I'm saying is, this is where you can do whatever you want to do, OK. And sports is a part of it. To take it out of education, for me as a parent, I say no because, again, a lot of our kids are there because of the sports. We have to - sure the education part...
MARTIN: You mean, they stay in school because of the sports? That's their hook to stay.
TUCKER: A lot of our kids wouldn't even come to school if they couldn't play something.
TUCKER: Really, because - you know, and again, but that is America. That is us. We are a melting pot. We just have to sure up how we support each fraction of what we are and who we are.
MARTIN: Glenn, what do you thing?
IVEY: I think it's more of a mixed bag than sort of both of those positions, I mean, because you have outstanding - like, take Gonzaga, a catholic high school here in D.C. -Incredible sports programs, incredible academics. They tend to send a lot of athletes, for example, to Ivy League and Patriot League schools, but nobody questions the academics at Gonzaga. On the other hand...
MARTIN: Are those the same kids, though?
MARTIN: Are those the same kids - those kids who are sort of...
IVEY: Yeah. The kids who...
MARTIN: ...Top performers in the classroom?
IVEY: Look at the Ivy League football and basketball teams and see where those kids come from. It's places like Gonzaga. OK.
MARTIN: But it's also true that some of these places - and I'm not talking about Gonzaga - but some of these places are degree mills, too. It is true that a lot of these kids come from schools that seem to exist for the sole purpose of giving a safe harbor to student athletes and moving them along.
IVEY: Well, I think that's...
MARTIN: I'm not talking about Gonzaga. But the fact is, that does exist. There are whole high schools set up for that sole purpose of being a funnel to...
IVEY: I think that's the point.
MARTIN: ...To Division I schools.
IVEY: We need to avoid talking about sort of all of them in the same way because you do have degree mill kinds of schools, which, firstly, have no academic program. They're all focused on sports and sending kids to college on athletic scholarships, and that doesn't always work, as we know. But there's a lot that don't. I think the middle ground here is to really make sure that whatever the school does and, more importantly, whatever the parents and the community do, they have a strong focus on academics in addition to athletics. And athletics can help to reinforce that message.
MARTIN: Amanda, I'm going to give you the final word 'cause you wrote the book "The Smartest Kids in the World," looking at education systems around the world, is there a place that Dani would like, that you would like, and that Glenn would like, where they maintain good sports programs and high academic achievement? Anybody getting it right in your view?
RIPLEY: I actually think there are places within the U.S. - Spelman College. Spelman College - the president of Spelman College realized that they were spending a million dollars on 4 percent of their students who were athletes.
MARTIN: They eliminated their intercollegiate...
MARTIN: ...Sports program.
RIPLEY: They shut it down. She said let's flip it.
MARTIN: OK, but that's not a program that Dani would like.
RIPLEY: Wait, wait I'm not done. I'm not done. She's going to love this. Wait. Half of their incoming freshman class had health conditions that could be improved with exercise - diabetes, obesity, that kind of thing. So she took that million dollars and transferred it to health and wellness classes, races, programs for every one because those are the skills that are going to serve more young people for longer than the 4 percent of athletes who are competing in elite leagues.
MARTIN: So they hired fitness instructors like Dani?
MARTIN: OK. All right. OK, Amanda Ripley wrote the article "The Case Against High-School Sports" for The Atlantic. She's a mom of one. Glenn Ivey is an attorney, father of six. Dani Tucker is founder of a fitness company and mom of two. They were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much for joining us.
TUCKER: Thank you.
IVEY: Thank you.
RIPLEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.