Of course correlation does not imply causation. It might be that schools with well-run athletic programs benefit from superior leadership that also fosters better academic results. Or, put differently, schools that tend to be successful in one venue are often successful in others. Much more research is certainly needed on the topic, but we theorize that sports can in fact reinforce the missions of schools in ways that potentially help, not harm, academic achievement.
The need to build trust and social capital is even more essential when schools are serving disadvantaged and at-risk students. Perhaps the most promising empirical evidence on this point comes from a Chicago program called Becoming A Man--Sports Edition. In this program, at-risk male students are assigned for a year to counselors and athletic coaches who double as male role models. In this partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Youth Guidance, and World Sport Chicago, sports are used to form bonds between the boys and their mentors and to teach self-control. The usual ball and basket sports are sometimes played, but participants are also trained in violent sports like boxing at school.
Chicago researchers were able to conduct a gold-standard evaluation because the program was oversubscribed and participation was determined by lottery. According to a 2013 evaluation conducted by the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, Becoming a Man--Sports Edition creates lasting improvements in the boys’ study habits and grade point averages. During the first year of the program, students were found to be less likely to transfer schools or be engaged in violent crime. A year after the program, participants were less likely to have had an encounter with the juvenile justice system.
If school-sponsored sports were completely eliminated tomorrow, many American students would still have opportunities to participate in organized athletics elsewhere, much like they do in countries such as Finland, Germany, and South Korea. The same is not certain when it comes to students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. In an overview of the research on non-school based after-school programs, Gardner, Roth, and Brooks-Gunn find that disadvantaged children participate in these programs at significantly lower rates. They find that low-income students have less access due to challenges with regard to transportation, non-nominal fees, and off-campus safety. Therefore, reducing or eliminating these opportunities would most likely deprive disadvantaged students of the benefits from athletic participation, not least of which is the opportunity to interact with positive role models outside of regular school hours.
Another unfounded criticism that Ripley makes is bringing up the stereotype that athletic coaches are typically lousy classroom teachers. “American principals, unlike the vast majority of principals around the world, make many hiring decisions with their sports teams in mind—a calculus that does not always end well for students,” she writes. Educators who seek employment at schools primarily for the purpose of coaching are likely to shirk teaching responsibilities, the argument goes. Moreover, even in the cases where the employee is a teacher first and athletic coach second, the additional responsibilities that come with coaching likely come at the expense of time otherwise spent on planning, grading, and communicating with parents and guardians.
The data, however, do not seem to confirm this stereotype. In the most rigorous study on the classroom results of high school coaches, the University of Arkansas’s Anna Egalite, Daniel Bowen, and Julie Trivitt find that athletic coaches in Florida mostly tend to perform just as well as their non-coaching counterparts, with respect to raising student test scores. We do not doubt that teachers who also coach face serious tradeoffs that likely come at the expense of time they could dedicate to their academic obligations. However, as with sporting events, athletic coaches gain additional opportunities for communicating and serving as mentors that potentially help students succeed and make up for the costs of coaching commitments.
If schools allow student-athletes to regularly miss out on instructional time for the sake of traveling to athletic competitions, that’s bad. However, such issues would be better addressed by changing school and state policies with regard to the scheduling of sporting events as opposed to outright elimination. If the empirical evidence points to anything, it points towards school-sponsored sports providing assets that are well worth the costs.
Despite negative stereotypes about sports culture and Ripley’s presumption that academics and athletics are at odds with one another, we believe that the greater body of evidence shows that school-sponsored sports programs appear to benefit students. Successes on the playing field can carry over to the classroom and vice versa. More importantly, finding ways to increase school communities’ social capital is imperative to the success of the school as a whole, not just the athletes.