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Why high school sports matter, and why they don't

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I've been covering the Lawrence school board for almost two years now. Before that, I spent the better part of the previous 23 years covering government bodies of all other types - from city councils and county commissions to the Kansas Legislature and, occasionally, some congressional activity. I've even sat through meetings of a few rural water districts and watershed management boards.

So I think I'm qualified to say there are two things about covering the local school board that stand out as odd. The first is, in all the meetings I've attended, I have never once witnessed any person - administrator or member of the public - come before that board and tell them bad news. Not once. Not ever. That's just plain weird.

Second, I can count on one hand the number of times any member of the public has come to address them about anything, or to speak out on any topic before the board. And that includes the $92.5 million bond issue they put on the ballot last year.

Well, there's a decent chance that could change Monday, at least if my good friend and colleague, and J-W sports editor, Tom Keegan has anything to say about it. In a column today, he is urging his readers to show up Monday night and speak out on an issue of great concern to many in Lawrence — the firing of a high school basketball coach.

Now, we on the news desk are accustomed to the fact that we work in a sports-crazed town. If a public official were arrested for drunk driving (not saying that would ever happen) on the same day Bill Self signs up the number-one high school recruit in the nation, there is no doubt as to which story would get more web hits.

But there should come a point when sports needs to be put in its proper perspective, and so here's my rant about the obsession with college and high school sports:

Public universities were not built to be taxpayer subsidized (and tax-exempt) farm clubs for the NFL and NBA. And public high schools are not training camps for the NCAA. These are educational institutions whose mission is to mold boys and girls to become responsible, educated young men and women. Sports are a means to that end; they are not an end unto themselves.

The row over the sacking of Lawrence High basketball coach Mike Lewis centers on the fact that he posted a 17-5 record this year, and it has been widely assumed his team will be contenders for the 6A state title next year. Secondary to that is the widely held belief that he's a good guy and a good role model for his students.

What seems to be missing from the conversation is that Lewis is, first and foremost, a teacher. And as such, he should be held to the same educational standards of accountability as all other teachers, whether they teach English, math, science ... or kindergarten.

Every subject that is taught in school, and every extracurricular activity that takes place before or after school, is supposed to have an educational objective. And teachers are held accountable for how well they achieve those objectives.

The objectives of a high school sports program should be to teach students about teamwork, leadership, goal-setting, physical fitness, health, and mental and physical discipline. Students should learn the importance of respecting the rules and respecting (if not always obeying) authority. And, yes, they should have fun.

I have no idea how Coach Lewis measures up when judged by those standards. I only know that those should be the standards by which he or any other high school coach is measured. Not by their win-loss record or the number of trophies they bring home.

Comments

Ken Miller 1 year ago

The only part of your rant I take some issue with is your statement "And public high schools are not training camps for the NCAA. These are educational institutions whose mission is to mold boys and girls to become responsible, educated young men and women. Sports are a means to that end; they are not an end unto themselves."

True, in an ivory tower sense. As a parent who has recently lived through a child's college search, acceptance and final choice, I can tell you the sports she played in high school and her eventual proficiency in those sports resulted in athletic scholarship $$$. Couple that funding with academic scholarship $$$, and our family can afford to send her to college. So the years of work (and parental funding) for sports endeavors ("training camps") also served the higher purpose of NCAA scholarship and college attendance (and hopefully a college degree).

1 year ago

There are lots of other avenues to collegiate success that don't have to revolve around athletics. It costs 4 times as much money to field a high school football player than it does to educate that "student-athlete." While I know full well the benefits athletics have on students academic ability, I also know of many more success stories of non-athletes succeeding academically or in a different extra-curricular activity, especially ones that don't require near the facilities and expense to maintain.

Kirk Mango 12 months ago

At first…I wasn’t sure the direction your piece might take based on the title “Why high school sports matter, and why they don’t.” However, as I read through your article it became clear that you seem to have a solid grasp of what high school sports should be all about and where it needs to be placed in relation to the educational purpose of our schools.

As a former high school teacher (34 years), coach (17 years), a parent of two competitive athletes (from youth sports, through H.S. and competitive college DI sports), and former competitive athlete myself…I believe your piece has strong merit.

I wholeheartedly agree with:

“Public universities were not built to be taxpayer subsidized (and tax-exempt) farm clubs for the NFL and NBA. And public high schools are not training camps for the NCAA. These are educational institutions whose mission is to mold boys and girls to become responsible, educated young men and women. Sports are a means to that end; they are not an end unto themselves.”

AND

“Every subject that is taught in school, and every extracurricular activity that takes place before or after school, is supposed to have an educational objective. And teachers are held accountable for how well they achieve those objectives.

The objectives of a high school sports program should be to teach students about teamwork, leadership, goal-setting, physical fitness, health, and mental and physical discipline [and I might add commitment, priority setting, and sacrifice, among others]. Students should learn the importance of respecting the rules and respecting (if not always obeying) authority. And, yes, they should have fun.”

Anyone that does not grasp those statements you made fails to truly comprehend the real value of competitive athletics. When sports, at any level, become more (or all) about winning, money, fame, scholarship, records, etc. (all extrinsic aspects), an end to a means so-to-speak, we lose the intrinsic value and reward that can come out of said participation. We become misdirected…away from the life lessons that are available through a healthy competitive sports experience.

It is the PROCESS that truly matters, where the major focus should be placed, not the outcome. It is when this becomes reversed that a path of “winning at all costs” turns viable for many. Something we see all too often in sports these days…from youth on up through the National, Olympic, and professional levels.

Yes…as you said…competitive sports are a “means to an end”….and that end refers to the intrinsic attributes (ones that can be applied outside the athletic arena) one gains by said experience. It is sad for me to see and read that so many adopt the opposite of that thought process.

Kirk Mango

Author: “Becoming a True Champion”

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