Ripley indulges a popular obsession with international test score comparisons, which show wide and frightening gaps between the United States and other countries. She ignores, however, the fact that states vary at least as much in test scores as do developed countries. A 2011 report from Harvard University shows that Massachusetts produces math scores comparable to South Korea and Finland, while Mississippi scores are closer to Trinidad and Tobago. Ripley’s thesis about sports falls apart in light of this fact. Schools in Massachusetts provide sports programs while schools in Finland do not. Schools in Mississippi may love football while in Tobago interscholastic sports are nowhere near as prominent. Sports cannot explain these similarities in performance. They can’t explain international differences either.
If it is true that sports undermine the academic mission of American schools, we would expect to see a negative relationship between the commitment to athletics and academic achievement. However, the University of Arkansas’s Daniel H. Bowen and Jay P. Greene actually find the opposite. They examine this relationship by analyzing schools’ sports winning percentages as well as student-athletic participation rates compared to graduation rates and standardized test score achievement over a five-year period for all public high schools in Ohio. Controlling for student poverty levels, demographics, and district financial resources, both measures of a school’s commitment to athletics are significantly, positively related to lower dropout rates as well as higher test scores.
On-the-field success and high participation in sports is not random--it requires focus and dedication to athletics. One might think this would lead schools obsessed with winning to deemphasize academics. Bowen and Greene’s results contradict that argument. A likely explanation for this seemingly counterintuitive result is that success in sports programs actually facilitates or reflects greater social capital within a school’s community.
Ripley cites the writings of renowned sociologist James Coleman, whose research in education was groundbreaking. Coleman in his early work held athletics in contempt, arguing that they crowded out schools’ academic missions. Ripley quotes his 1961 study, The Adolescent Society, where Coleman writes, “Altogether, the trophy case would suggest to the innocent visitor that he was entering an athletic club, not an educational institution."
However, in later research he would show how the success of schools is highly dependent on what he termed social capital, “the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up.”
Coleman finds that social capital is highly predictive of academic success. He comes to this conclusion after conducting substantial research on the remarkably low dropout rates at religious private schools. “After extensive investigation,” he and his colleagues Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore conclude that the private-school effect “was not the result of greater curricular demands or anything else within the school, but was due to a different relation of the school to the parental community.” He concludes that it is weekly gatherings for religious services that facilitate increases in social capital. Although Coleman never studies sports from this aspect, we believe school-sponsored sporting events provide a secularized equivalent to these weekly, religious gatherings.