Author: Henri Robert (Progressive Democrat)
Americans are no strangers to competition. Quite frankly, the American paradigm of thinking has been centered on the principles of competition, ranging from business markets to youth sports. However, not all forms of competition are created with equal value, and when it comes to ensuring a sustainable future, priorities need to be established. One of the primary institutions that needs to recognize these priorities is the United States’ education system. A major conflict of interest in American education is the oversaturation of sports, a major distraction that diverts time and resources away from academic instruction, whose purpose is to equip individuals with technical knowledge and critical skills necessary for the future. Thus it is imperative for steps to be taken to ensure the contradictions are removed and the issue is amended by distancing schools from sports.
Global Competition: From Textbooks to the Economy
At face value, the United States does have high ranks in several educational metrics, particularly in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for fifteen year-old students in 2018. On a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the lowest and 4 being the highest, the United States occupied Level 3 in the Reading and Science categories and Level 2 in Math, which is relatively promising considering its large population. However, upon further inspection, the United States consistently lagged behind other major economic leaders such as China, Japan, and Germany in Math and Science, the two foundational subjects that lead to success in the STEM field and by extension the Information Technology Sector. This trend is indicative of two worrying considerations.
Firstly, the United States education is underperforming relative to its economy on a global scale. The United States ranks thirteenth in Gross Domestic Product at Purchasing Power Parity per capita ($59,928), which outpaces Germany (nineteenth at $52,556 per capita), Japan (twenty-eighth at $42,067), and China (seventy-ninth at $16,842). However, the United States in 2015-2016 spent $706 billion towards public elementary and secondary schools, 3.8% of its 2016 GDP of $18.7 trillion. This means that the United States is underperforming against its peers in education despite being one of the leading countries in economic performance. This does not bode well for future growth due to the growing importance of technological growth and innovation in growing the economy and promoting sustainability. Being unable to keep pace in math and science puts the US at a disadvantage, for lagging behind in innovation can make the US dependent on other countries’ success.
Secondly, China is already primed to be the frontrunner in global technological innovation. It is no secret that the United States and China have been at economic odds in the past years, and the competition in the information technology market can suddenly tip the balance to one side’s advantage. China already has experienced tremendous growth in innovation in the past decade, racing to establish 5G, aiming for leadership in Artificial Intelligence development, and investing in semiconductors. A significant factor in China’s past and future success has been its efficiency in education, being the only country to be in PISA’s Level 4 in Reading, Math, and Science. By no means is the US an undereducated country on the global scale, but the lower PISA averages compared to China, Japan, and Germany show how there are many untapped aspects in the education system that need to be expanded on to ensure a pipeline towards economic success is established.
The Problem: Breaking Under the Load of Distractions
There are a multitude of issues that the entire US education system must address. However a major limiting factor to maximum school efficiency is the overemphasis on sports, and having a conflict of interest will not benefit an education system that still has significant struggles in ensuring high standards are met.
Although the causal relationship between spending time participating in sports and declining student performance can be disputed, it is important for contextualization that schools in the US have been struggling to maximize student success. Across the board, for fourth and eighth graders, scores in math and reading have dropped for the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test. Particularly for eighth graders, the average reading score has declined by three points and the average math score by one point compared to 2017. Advancing past secondary school, colleges overall have a six-year graduation rate of 60% for a four-year bachelor’s degree. At face value this would be a reasonable rate, but instead, it demonstrates that colleges are not efficient in ensuring that six years can guarantee a student obtaining a degree that would otherwise take four years to obtain. Furthermore, the traditional bachelor’s degree itself is starting to become an archaic ticket to the workplace since other forms of valid credentials are becoming more significant and competitive in the digital workspace. These statistics highlight that American education is not in a position to handle extraneous functions that compete with academics, and sports, in this case, only serves to subvert efforts to strengthen academics in these institutions.
Subversion of academic functions is particularly notorious at the collegiate level in the United States. Collegiate athletics cause massive financial investments from their college institutions whether it is a big market sport–such as football or basketball–or not. In a report by the Delta Cost Project, median spending for Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) athletics was around $92,000 per athlete compared to around $14,000 per full-time equivalent students of the same institutions in 2010, a massive disparity in spending for an academic institution. Most NCAA Division 1 athletic departments are not even financially solvent on their own as well, with most relying on institutional financial support to make up for the lack of revenue that big market sports would possess. Additionally, there are claims that colleges repeatedly lower standards to ensure elite athletes enter their schools and achieve adequate grades. Thus the picture the American college system paints is one of sports fetishization rather than dedicating as much resources as possible towards priming future leaders for success in their respective fields. Of course, there are highly successful academic institutions that do not excessively emphasize the value of sports, but exorbitant financial dedication to sports programs should not be the norm of any academic institution.
Lastly, advocating for school involvement in sports is not justified nor is it commercially efficient for students. The NCAA itself reports that of the millions of high school athletes, no sport sees more than 13% go to any of the NCAA’s three divisions -with the exception of women’s ice hockey. Furthermore, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are only around 10,800 professional athletes and sports competitors, further cutting down the number of NCAA participants that will be professionally employed. Dedicating large amounts of funding towards a demographic that will only decline in numbers at a rapid pace is not a pragmatic financial policy for schools that are incentivized to maximize post-graduation success of their students. The majority of the workforce will be going towards growing industries that contribute the most to economic growth, so schools should dedicate resources to maximizing effective instruction for those fields instead. A rebuttal of this argument can certainly be that the majority of athletes do not intend to move to the next level but rather complement their academics. This would be valid if there were no academic and financial consequences, but in reality, schools are not successful enough to warrant spending large sums of capital towards athletic programs.
What Can Be Changed?
There are two joint ways that the separation of education from sports can be accomplished without excessively compromising American sports culture.
Firstly, let the private sector handle sports. Sports clubs and leagues that are not dependent on schools participating already exist and do not take away tax dollars that are intended for education. Allowing other leagues to compete with originally school-based leagues such as the NCAA on the collegiate level can improve the sports sector as well. Leagues that help prepare athletes for professional sports, such as the XFL and AAF for football, can be able to attract future NFL prospects without NCAA monopolization. Youth sports already have club sports, and without major school participation, costs to participate in clubs can decrease due to more participants funneling in from schools in which they originally competed for. Thus academic institutions can focus on education while the private sector can fill the void in sports participation.
Secondly, let students have more control of their school-based sports activities. If students want to play recreationally while being semi-competitive at the youth sports level or collegiate level, allow them to have more administrative authority over their activities. This allows students to practically develop skills in administration and management which would originally be delegated to salaried employees, and it would be less of a financial burden on schools to support these smaller recreational programs.
Thus a competitive and non-competitive area for sports can be achieved while removing schools’ involvement. Tax dollars intended for education should not be funneled into athletic departments, and it is the primary responsibility of schools to dedicate 100% of its resources towards cultivating future leaders and ensuring they have an environment conducive to their future success.
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