While I was researching the resurgence of sports in public schools and the diminishing support for arts, I ran across this blog by Grace Chen. Chen goes through 10 reasons why sports help students. Puhleeze! As if students can’t get these benefits without joining sports in schools. Let me delve into these one at a time and contrast them with why arts and extracurricular activities are the salvation for the rut we’ve dig our high school students into.
1. Community Representation: I wonder why Chen envisions “community representation” so important that it merit a bullet point. Her point is that teams compete against other communities and thus represent their own community. Let me turn this presumption upside down.
In a sports competition, there’s always a winner, and a loser. What is the purpose of representing the winning community? Does the mayor of community A call the mayor of community B and rub B’s nose in the dirt? What about the losing team? Are the athletes supposed to feel that they let their community down? “We proudly represented our community, alas we did not prevail, but hopefully next time.”
In sports, there are more losers than winners. By throwing in a measure like community representation, you’re actually causing more pain, since there are less “winning” communities than there are “losing” ones.
Most arts, on the other hand, do not pit students or teams against each other. Yes, I was in a marching band in high school. Yes, we drove to Virginia Beach for band competition. No, we did not feel like losers when we didn’t win — we may actually have won. I don’t remember. That’s how little winning or losing mattered.
2. Fitness: Chen states that based on a 2002 Department of Education study, “students who spent no time in extracurricular activities in high school were 49 percent more likely to use drugs and 37 percent more apt to become teen parents.” If I read that correctly, the study doesn’t differentiate between sports and chess club, speech team, or theater. So, to attribute the negative outcomes with students who did not participate in sports is false.
I did find this study which was conducted in 1999. It’s conclusion states, “Female adolescents who participated in sports were less likely than their non-athletic peers to engage in sexual activity and/or report a pregnancy.” It follows that sports did not affect male students the same way. But according to the same study, “In the United States, most high school athletes come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds where there is comparatively lower risk for unwanted pregnancy than in lower socioeconomic strata. A portion of the lower risk for pregnancy among high school female athletes, therefore, might be explained by social class differences.”
The premise for this study was limited to high school athletes, thus it’s understandable that its conclusion relies on that information. Here’s another study that reaches the same conclusion, but includes all extracurricular activities, although its cohort is only 28, hardly enough in my opinion to substantiate their findings.
3. Improved Academics: Chen mentions a survey — again, without a reference, so I could not find it — that concluded high school athletes had better GPA than non-athletes. I would hope that data would be readily available on this matter and that a survey would be unnecessary.
I will not rebuke this premise, since data points to the same direction, but let me offer reasons why this may be the case:
- Most schools have GPA requirements for students to enroll in athletic programs.
- Athletes routinely receive tutoring to ensure their grades are kept up and threatened to be kicked off the teams if their grades fall.
Parents, coaches and athletic directors will fight for their athletes and confront teachers who may be giving bad grades— based on anecdotal evidence, thus the strikethrough, but see this and this.
Let’s turn this topic of “improved academics” on its head, though. Sports are completely outside of academics. While shooting a 3 pointer requires skills acquired through practice and dedication to a student’s goal of becoming a better player, arts, on the other hand, are completely within the academics’ realm. Besides, studying art is a humble experience and leaves the artist with a desire to learn even more. If that’s not contributing to improved academics, I’m not sure what is.
4. The Importance of 3 “P’s”: The 3 “Ps” being persistence, patient, and practice. Chen writes that athletes learn the importance of these by participating in sports. Again, I’m not sure if sports are an important key here. After all, musicians learn the same thing. I don’t know of any concert pianist who just skated through without practicing their scales and arpeggios over and over, hour after hour, day after day, and week after week. The same can be said of all academic subjects, or for that matter, anything you wish to excel at. Granted some students may have a natural, better understanding of a particular subject, but without the 3 “Ps”, nobody would get better in what they’re doing.
5. Teamwork and Cooperation: This is another bullet point that should not have been in the list, as it only relates to being in team sport. A wrestler does not get any such benefit, unless of course competing at a team level, but there’s no necessity for the wrestler to be a team leader or playing a supporting role. But let me bring up the perfect examples of orchestra, marching band, jazz band, theater and choir where cooperation is a very integral part of each.
6. Positive Mentors: Chen writes that “High school athletics are filled with positive mentors, from the coaches on the sidelines to the leaders on the team.” What a snub that is to all the other dedicated teachers, counselors and administrative staff in high schools. Are teachers incapable of being a positive mentor? Art teachers routinely stay long hours after school to help students, both academically and emotionally.
7. Social Relationships: The blog states that the bond between teammates is strong and forms close friendships that last not only throughout high school, but continue to do so after. I would argue that not everyone on a team forms those close bonds, as it is not in our nature to form the same bond with everyone else around us just because we may have the same passion or goal. We choose who we form those bonds with based on a multitude of factors, a couple of which may be passion and goal, but certainly a bully on the football team wouldn’t garner the same strong bonds with his teammates as everyone else does.
The same can be true of any extracurricular activity. If you join the math club for 4 years and meet with everyone else who has done so, chances are you’ll form the same bonds with each other, hang out at each other’s houses watching movies, and keep in touch after high school.
8. Leadership Skills: Supposedly there’s a study out there by Dr. Will Barratt and Dr. Mark Frederick at Indiana State University — although I cannot find it — that states athletes make better leaders than non-athletes. Here is a blurb about it on ESPN. The authors decided that for this study, they wouldn’t look at readily available data, such as GPA, but decided to concentrate on 7 intangible skills: critical thinking, self-awareness, communication, diversity, citizenship, relationships and leadership. How they went about measuring these skills is beyond me — and in the paper I cannot find — but, if true, skeptics point to several possible contributing factors. One is that college athletes usually get a free pass on being able to take the same class over and over until they pass, but non-athletes can do so only twice and must pay for both times. Another factor is that the rules are generally bent for athletes to work around their schedules. Yet another factor skeptics point out is that athletes in college maintain the rigidity and discipline they faced in high school, while their counterparts aren’t under the same closed supervision.
Again, I don’t see how students who have advanced through years on sports team differ from students who have worked on plays after plays, musicals after musicals, or have progressed to play first clarinet in the band. If there is something inherently unique to sports in developing students into leaders, I have failed to see it.
9. Time Management: Yet again, being in sports does not make one a superhero when it comes to time management. Time management is a skill that almost everyone in any extracurricular activity must perfect. After all, an extracurricular activity is just that. School work must still be completed.
10. Success Mindset: Chen sums up the blog by listing some bullet points from another article on things that help athletes have successful mindsets. And again, I’d have to point out that there is nothing inherent in being an athlete that contributes to having a successful mindset. For sure, there exist athletes that have a successful mindset as Chen put it, but I’d argue that the same is true of anyone, regardless of whether they’re in any activities or not.
To sum the points of Chen’s blog, I’d say that none of them, with the exception of possibly fitness, has any merit in promoting sports other other extracurricular activities. But even fitness is not a sure win for sports. Theater and ballet, for instance, can exert fitness as well. When I was in the marching band and carried a portable xylophone around, I was quite fit.
But aside from disproving Chen’s points …
What’s the case for arts?
Let’s go back 500 years to 1519 AD in France. There lays Leonardo da Vinci on his death bed, thinking about everything he did throughout his life. As he closes his eyes and dies, he wonders what is going to happen to everything he created, specially the painting he created of that not-so-pretty girl with that smirk on her face. Fast forward to 2019 and that not-so-pretty girl’s portrait is viewed by over 10 million museum visitors every single year. The Sistine Chapel is visited by over 5 million visitors per year. And we are talking about art that was created 500 years ago. I can guarantee that every day throughout the world, there are over 1000 performances of some work from Beethoven or Mozart. At any one second of the 86400 seconds of each day, there are at least 100 people throughout the world playing a Chopin piece on a piano. And these artists have long been dead.
Riddle me this, Batman. How many people in the world are talking about The Gronk this very second? As I’m writing this on a Sunday during football season, I’d venture and say a few. Does anyone talk about him in April? I’m not saying that The Mona Lisa is that impressive of a painting, but you catch my drift.
Who has lived on? Who will live on? If humanity continues its upward path for the next several hundred years, I’d be surprised if Bach and Schubert were forgotten. But what if they may? The dwindling budget for arts compared to dollars allocated for sports in any school district could potentially contribute to that catastrophe. The United States educational system has been under tremendous strain in terms of budget cuts. Federal funding has all but vanished and states have cut their spending on education. If you pay attention to the details, you’ll notice that school art programs are the first to go on the butcher’s block. The allocations for arts did not amount to much to begin with, compared with maintaining the turf on the football field, but somehow these ratios don’t factor into the equation to see where money can be saved. It is numbing to see monetary support for the arts nearly vanish as time goes on.
Support for the arts has also declined socially. I am not referring to popular art, such as the production of Hamilton, which everyone oohs and ahhs over. FM Stations that played classical and jazz can no longer sustain themselves. Before 2000s, Chicago had two classical FM stations (WFMT and WNIB) and two Jazz (WDCB full-time and WBEZ on nights and weekend). Now only WFMT and WDCB remain. Artsy films do not garner the viewers they once did, and the quality of the films has dropped over the years, to the point that I have stopped looking for domestic films in English and look for foreign films to watch.
But why is this a “sports vs. arts” issue? Glad you asked. Let me elaborate.
We try to appease the public. What the public likes, the public shall get, otherwise we may as well be looking for another job. Perhaps it is better to look for another job if that’s the mentality. The U.S. public definitely likes high school sports — football in particular — above other things. Yes, yes. Everyone knows that you must study math and English to graduate. They’ll help you in the future. So the public puts up with that. But arts? Meh, not really. What’s the purpose of another mediocre Christmas concert? What’s the purpose of a mediocre musical in February? There is no purpose. What is playing flute for 4 years going to do for you in 20 years? I’d argue a lot, but the public doesn’t see it that way. The public wants what it wants: excitement. Let’s face it. Obviously watching Friday night high school football is way more exciting than listening to a band concert. You can eat popcorn and talk at the game without anyone giving you a dirty look.
But what about the students deprived of enjoying the arts, a life-long attachment that could have helped them grow and burst with creativity, or at least help them understand their humanity a little more clearly? Listening to some of the past musical pieces — classical or not, think Pink Floyd’s Shine On, but really understanding and delving into the music — could be life altering for some, and plain enjoyment for others. Watching Children of a Lesser God as a stage production in my magnet school for the deaf and hard of hearing students was an experience for me. I wouldn’t want to deprive any student from having the opportunity to act in that play, or anybody from seeing it.
Where does that leave us? I doubt I have created a case for the art. To do so would require a book or two of its own. But consider this. Do we want to create even a larger gap in our timeline as humans than we have already created? A gap within which respect for the fine arts has diminished and schools are hard-pressed to keep up with the students’ natural desire for the arts? Must the arts take a back seat to sports — or any other subject for that matter — in order for us to make ends meet in our budgets?
Learning and appreciating the fine arts is a life-long endeavor, one that get better with age like a fine wine. It is the nourishment your inner being should desire, and if it’s not, then we have our work cut out for us.