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

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.