The Atlantic on High School Sports: the Rest of the Story


I have serious issues with Amanda Ripley’s recent feature, “The Case against High-School Sports,” the cover story in this month’s The Atlantic. It’s a hatchet job, plain and simple, more concerned with selling magazines than with accurately informing the public.

Ripley draws huge conclusions by focusing almost entirely on the Premont Independent School District in Texas, expecting readers to go along with sweeping generalizations based on a single case study.

Ripley writes how in the spring of 2012, the state threatened to shut down this district for “financial mismanagement and academic failure.” Her narrative then focuses on a new superintendent, Ernest Singleton, who suspended all sports and saved the district a considerable amount of money, at least $150,000.

These are impressive figures marred by shoddy journalism. Nowhere does Ripley consider how hiring more responsible administrators might also have saved the district money. More still, I’m left wondering if those in charge of such financial mismanagement got to keep their jobs. Either way, a more responsible reporter would have done her due-diligence by at least addressing this issue. But Ripley continues to rattle-off another volley of “shocking” statistics:

“The first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before.” She goes on to quote Singleton: “The first 12 weeks of school were the most peaceful beginning weeks I’ve ever witnessed at a high school. It was calm. There was a level of energy devoted to planning and lessons, to after-school tutoring. I saw such a difference.”

I’ve rarely read such misleading copy in such a reputable publication. Sure, it’s great that more students passed their courses, but here again, this is the experience of one school district under one superintendent. Ripley does say that in recent years, budget cuts have “forced more school districts, from Florida to Illinois, to scale back on sports programs,” but nowhere does she write about or quote officials or teachers from those states.

A causal connections exist between every event or outcome and antecedent factors. I’m disappointed that an up-and-coming star in education reporting, and recent author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, directly correlates academic success with an absence of competitive high school athletics. What about other main factors, including how teachers, friends, and family play a role in one’s overall success?

More than this, academics aren’t the only thing that matters in young lives. I’m curious whether Ripley really considered how “quality of life,” however defined, would fluctuate if schools all over America did away with their athletic programs. Instead, she seems much more content with deriding the negative influence of high school athletic culture on academic performance.

I recently spoke with Joe Newton, the most successful high school cross country coach in American history. In over 50 years of coaching, he has led York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, to 28 state titles. That’s one title more than the number of World Series championships won by the New York Yankees.

But that’s not what impresses me most about Newton. He cares about winning, but he cares just as much about his teams’ academic successes—and he enforces his expectations. “I tell them all the first day of practice, ‘If you’re ineligible two weeks in a row, you’re not helping our team. You’re done. You’re going back into the classroom and start paying the price,’” he says.

I also recently spoke with Jim Hedman, who serves as Newton’s assistant coach. Hedman also ran for one of Newton’s early championship teams, and he reiterates the importance his mentor places on academics.

“Our grade point average on our team is the highest out of any team in the school every year. Just come in and talk to me. We’ll get somebody to tutor you to help you get through whatever you’re having a problem with,” Hedman says.

As I chat with Hedman, I’m mostly interested in the profound influence Newton has had on making him a better person, even at 52. Certainly, it’s important to score well on tests and perform well in school, but none of this speaks to building and reinforcing an individual’s quality of character, something Ripley gives very short shrift in her piece.

“I’m learning from [Newton] every day,” Hedman says. “I hope in my lifetime that I can be as successful, not just in coaching, but as a person with the things that I’m learning from him . . . . In a football play they talk about blood and guts, and a play lasts six seconds. Where in cross country, in the middle of the race there’s no time out. You can’t say, ‘I have an injury,’ or ‘I’m getting tired, timeout.’ You have a lot of time in the five minutes of that race that, literally, your brain is trying to talk you out of doing what you want to do. That’s where your heart comes in. You have to keep forging forward. It’s an awesome thing for life. It’s training for life.”

As a varsity cross country coach myself, I often say that my best runners are typically also the most driven individuals. This year, my mostly freshman squad stands an excellent chance of making it to the State meet. No academic grade or accolade, however impressive, stands as completely analogous to this possible accomplishment.

I also chat with Hedman’s son, Ron, who ran for Newton’s championship team in 2009. He tells me about a typical practice, which consists of grueling speed work and long miles. “By the time you get halfway, or when you get to 20, you’re exhausted. You’re just dead tired. Mr. Newton, he’s sitting over there …. He tries for us not to think about how we’re feeling and more thinking about what we want to do, just [finishing] the workout.”

This training translated to helping Ron succeed in the classroom.

“Running, it stimulates your brain,” Ron says. “[Coach Newton] tells us you learn new stuff every day, and it’s true. I always pay attention, and he has a high expectation of doing well in classes, and you always want to do good because you don’t want to be the kid who has the low GPA and guys look at you like, ‘I thought he was smarter.’ You always want to prove yourself.”

I’m confused when Ripley back-pedals in her argument halfway through, writing about how studies “generally suggests that sports do more good than harm for the players themselves.” She offers no specifics from these studies, nor does she provide any additional insight. Instead, she quickly moves back into attack mode, saying “only 40 percent of seniors participate in high-school athletics, and what’s harder to measure is how the overriding emphasis on sports affects everyone who doesn’t play.”

I would argue that successful student-athletes have a profoundly positive impact on their non-competitive counterparts, showing what’s possible both on and off the court or field. Newton frequently attracts over 200 students to his team, a large portion of whom are without any innate talent. Still, they want to belong to something special, a championship team, while reaping the benefits of Coach Newton’s mentorship.

I recently spoke with Nick Sorrentino, who ran for Newton and graduated from York in 2011. Sorrentino never made the top seven, finishing three miles in the mid-20s (nothing impressive), but he speaks glowingly of how his former coach inspired him to achieve greatness. “He really taught me about being tough even when it would be most difficult,” he says. “That toughness that he taught me through distance running has made me a tough student, studying when it’s hard.”

By emphasizing Coach Newton’s success at York, and also how he inspires greatness in the classroom, I also place myself in danger of receiving criticism for relying too heavily upon a single case study. But I don’t mean to suggest that what’s true at York stands true for the entire nation. I just mean to demonstrate that any journalist, employing elegant writing and a gripping narrative, can easily sway the overall tone of a story, especially when she gets caught up in a dramatic event.

Alas, this doesn’t stop Ripley from using Premont as the poster-child for why schools in other nations, which place far less emphasis on competitive sports, outperform their American counterparts.

“Even in eighth grade, American kids spend more than twice the time Korean kids spend playing sports, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics,” she writes. “In countries with more holistic, less hard-driving education systems than Korea’s, like Finland and Germany, many kids play club sports in their local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would they?”

I cannot begin to explain the vast cultural differences that exist between America and the above-mentioned nations. Certainly, the United States can learn from other nations’ best practices, but this works both ways. However impressive Finland’s student test scores (and they are quite impressive), perhaps that country could benefit from studying what American kids get out of high school sports.

At the same time, all of this doesn’t address the fact that, sports aside, Finland has a dramatically superior education philosophy. This is made all the more clear to me when I read an insightful article by LynNell Hancock for Smithsonian magazine, “Why are Finland’s Schools Successful?

“There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school,” she writes. “There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town.”

American public school educators have no such liberties, especially with preparing students to take an array of standardized tests. Whereas Finland promotes and supports individual creativity, too often, American bureaucrats without any classroom experience dictate educational policy. Sports aren’t the problem. It’s Finland’s unrestrained approach to teaching and learning that we should emulate.

Here’s hoping that The Atlantic practices more thorough and responsible journalism in their next issue.

Interview transcript (Coach Joe Newton):

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Interview transcript (Coach Jim Hedman):

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Interview transcript (Ron Hedman):

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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