Is it time to give football the boot?

American high schools care more about sports than academics, charges Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic.


Last year in Texas, whose small towns are the spiritual home of high-school football and the inspiration for Friday Night Lights, the superintendent brought in to rescue one tiny rural school district did something insanely rational. In the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down Premont Independent School District for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Ernest Singleton suspended all sports—including football.

To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs, which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and baseball teams each year.

Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.

Without football, Premont focused on academics. There were fewer fights. Eighty percent of the students passed their classes in the first sports-free semester, compared with 50 percent the previous fall.

Now out of debt, Premont brought back baseball, track, and tennis.

Competitive sports dominate childhood for higher-class families, writes Hilary Levey Friedman.

About Joanne


  1. Crimson Wife says:

    There was a parent-led effort in the town where we lived from ’06-’09 to establish a STEM-focused charter high school. One of the most common objections I heard was that the school wouldn’t have a varsity athletics program. Because everyone knows that high school is just an excuse to have football and basketball teams [insert eye-rolling smiley].

  2. Unfortunately, the sports and persons who play them will always by definition be more valued than academics, or geeks.

    It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the United States that athletics are more prized than academics.


    • But is anybody really all that surprised? Especially at the college level, the justification for having sports teams is that it helps to rake in the alumni dollars.

      It’s been a long time since anyone got excited about the G.E. College Bowl ~

    • GoogleMaster says:

      Wow, only 3 schools in the district (1 elem, 1 middle, 1 hs), and yet they have 6 districtwide admins+admin support, and 5.5 schoolwide admins+admin support. Why do they need district admins at all, for only one school per level? Note: 0 librarians, which would actually be a useful staff member.

  3. GoogleMaster says:

    This is Texas, where schools pride themselves on being big, so that they can compete in 5A football and not be relegated to 4A or lower. Nearly all of the high schools in the “desirable” suburban districts near me have enrollments over 3000, with some over 3500. Oddly, the “undesirable” central city district averages only about 1100 students per HS.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’d be interested in the net cost of football. When my kids were in HS, you paid either $2 or $3 to get into a home game. Our stands were pretty full, I’d estimate 1500-2000 people even in horrible weather.
    Except for cost, football is an extra-curricular activity like a hundred others. We worked with exchange students for many years and discovered the US is the only place that has any extracurriculars to speak of. Those participating have additional educational–in the general sense–opportunities. Considering some of the hot ideas of what to do in the classroom, extracurriculars are pretty hard-edged, results-oriented, no-excuses activities.
    If the school is trying to put out a paper, the articles come in on time or they don’t. If you can play the violin well, you get first chair, if not, not. If the techies know their stuff, the musical goes off well. If a kid can’t handle his end, the techies invite him to go elsewhere and tell the faculty sponsor about it later, if they remember.
    It’s practically like being a grownup.

  5. Mike in Texas says:

    Here in Texas football is king. Add in an insane way of financing schools and you get some districts that can afford to build a $60 million high school football stadium.

    I’ve suggested for years to a superintendent they could get the legislature to solve the school funding problem by threatening to cancel football. People would riot at the capitol. But for day to day running of a school system, not so much.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    Many selective colleges including the military academies look for students who have played sports and held a leadership position on a team. For all the negatives to focusing on sports too much, there are real benefits.

    What’s the saying? The Battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton? Learning how to compete, physically challenge yourself, get along and cooperative with others, was well as engaging in some strategic thinking are all good things.

    Pitting sports against academics is a false choice. We should be quite capable of doing both successfully.

    • Yes.


      One of the interesting things about the “sports” vs “academics only” in school is that US Universities (a) tend to value sports, and (b) tend to be rated among the best in the world.


      And any pushing to change things is to make US Universities more like the rest of the world. In most other areas, the goal would be to change the less highly ranked institutions to be more like the folks considered the best. Not in the other direction.


      I didn’t play sports in high school (or junior high or …) but my child plays baseball and takes Tae Kwon Do. It is pretty obvious that there are valuable life lessons to be learned doing these sorts of things. Yes, in theory, one doesn’t need to do this in school. But that’s where American has put sports for quite a while and I can easily see how this would be a lot easier to break than to improve.


      Stacy: “Learning how to compete, physically challenge yourself, get along and cooperative with others, was well as engaging in some strategic thinking are all good things.”

      I’d add to the list:
      (a) learning to get back up after getting your butt kicked
      (b) learning that sometimes what is best for the team isn’t what is best for you
      (c) learning to master physical fear

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Why do we need to have school-based athletics? Most places have community-based athletic programs whose costs are paid for by participating families. If I really value whatever sport and my kid is good enough to make the team, then I should be the one to pay for the privilege of playing, not the taxpayers.

      A school’s mission is academics, not athletics.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        A school’s mission is whatever the citizens say it is.
        You want to go back to the frontier? Frequently, the only educated people in the area were the teacher and the preacher. Ditto the only buildings big enough to hold more than a family.
        They became the community center, and have remained so.
        In a lot of places, the best ticket in town for sports or music or drama is the high school.
        And,as has been said, extracurriculars–athletic or not–are educational as well.
        Common Core porn, or how to get a task done to high specifications. Where my wife used to teach, the techies who ran the tech stuff for perrormances of various kinds had quite high standards and didn’t let the faculty sponsor get in the way. A new music director told me, during an intermission for Sound of Music, ‘The techies showed up like this little army, ready to go. Never had a thing to worry about.” It’s self-organized and self-perpetuating and, I submit, of more use to a kid than certain courses we could all name. Most of the organizations were like that.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        No, a public K-12 school’s mission is to help a student be successful in his or her life. As Stacy in New Jersey and Mark Roulo suggest, athletics can really help with this.

        In fact, I would suggest that by high school, when academics largely means watered down college courses, athletics may do a better job than academics for many of the young people attending the school.

        (I would add performing music and drama, too.)

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Roger. I’d add practically every extracurricular. Yearbook, school paper, chess club, retail club–whatever its name is, language club, foreign exchange student club, and more.
          One reason is that the kids have considerably more responsibility to run the thing than they do in class where they’re expected to sit still, be quiet, and tell the teacher from time to time what they’ve learned.
          Had a college friend who got an English MA from a very good school and an Ivy MBA, currently running a good-sized company, who said that 4H had been very useful to her. I didn’t ask at the time what the reason was, but in retrospect it was probably the requirement for individual initiative and responsiblity with more or less distant guidance from the sponsor.

          • Crimson Wife says:

            Chess club, student newspaper, performing arts groups, MathCounts team, Science Olympiad team, etc. are at least somewhat academic. Athletics are not.

            I’m not anti-sports. I was a competitive figure skater growing up and enjoy following the Red Sox. But I don’t think athletics is part of the school’s mission and therefore the costs should not be the taxpayers’ responsibility.

  7. Agree with previous posters that sports are, and have historically been, a part of US secondary education. This allows lower-income kids to have access to sports as well (and music, drama, debate, chess club, and so forth) which is a good thing. AT THE SAME TIME, can we agree that some sports (mostly football, but sometimes other sports as well, have become much too important at the school and district level? if league-based high school sports could morph into a more club sport model, the kids would still benefit but the high visibility sports would not distort the school’s or the district’s educational mission.