With state revenues thinned by our prolonged recession and with education funding slashed accordingly, high school sports are a logical target for the budgetary scalpel. In tough economic times can we really afford to maintain interscholastic teams at the expense of text books, class size, and other essential academic concerns?
Certainly, if teachers and students must make do with less in our classrooms and sometimes fewer days of instruction, athletes and coaches ought not be immune to such austerity. But it would be a mistake for any district or school -- particularly those in the inner-city -- to radically curtail sports or eliminate it altogether.
Interscholastic competition is not just about the gyrations of school pride or the glory of championships; the investment of all the money and time and effort is not for the sake of a few of our athletes beating the odds to become college or professional players. In fact, those few athletes whose skills will ultimately earn them scholarships or salaries are probably those least in need of their high school teams. For many of those aspiring collegiate and professional athletes travel/club teams and other outside competitions have been as important as representing their schools. If high school athletics were eliminated or severely scaled back, those outside competitions would almost certainly expand to fill in the gaps in training and competition for the elite athletes.
It is for the rest of our high school athletes that we must maintain our programs -- to whatever degree that we can.
Sports are a powerful motivating tool for some of our most at-risk students, sometimes the only reason they come to school and make an effort in their classes. Homeless students reducing the hours of their degradation by belonging to something and excelling at it between 3:00 and 6:00 and through that seeing a future for themselves. Young men staying out -- or even geting out -- of gangs. No team I've ever coaches has won any championships and the closest any of my athletes have ever come to athletic greatness would be playing on the same 8th grade team with Russell Westbrook or in a 10 year old park league with Tyson Chandler -- or getting dunked on in the Watts Summer Games by Jordan Farmar. But greatness and large-scale recognition is not what competing is about for most high school student athletes.
It's about learning to deal with stress without getting violent, without giving up. It's about getting along with other people and supporting a school culture of diversity and peace. A school police officer once told me that after twenty years on the job he saw a direct correlation between the strength of a school's football program and its risk of racial violence. A diverse football team, he said, tends to enforce tolerance among the rest of the students.
Athletics are considered extra-curricular activities, but like many so-called extra-curriculars, they should not -- if done right -- be considered extra-curricular at all. The lessons learned in practice and during competition -- the beauty and reward of hard-work, the mental and physical discipline to push past one's perceived limitations and play through adversity and stand tall in defeat, the teamwork and endurance and the understanding of one's weaknesses along with the willingness to do what it takes to overcome those weaknesses -- these lessons are as important to individual success after graduation as any part of any academic subject
Which is probably the core reasoning behind Title IX--the education law intended to ensure that young women have equal access to these competition-inspired lessons.
For more than two years now, despite continual budget cuts, the Los Angeles City Section -- where I am a coach and athletic director -- has been, like high school athletic associations throughout the country, working hard to preserve sports among its member high schools.
Last year, Nike and the LA84 Foundation made a one-time donation that saved anywhere from one-third to one-half of our section's teams. Nike's gift was not given on behalf of any of the teams that play on television wearing the Nike symbol (those weren't the teams that would have been cut). The money saved teams made up of athletes who will probably never play on television but who are, more than anyone, playing for their collective futures.
I just hope their teams have a future.