Are high school sports a luxury?

fnl_buddy.jpg On NBC’s critically acclaimed — and little watched — series “Friday Night Lights,” a high school principal, who happens to be married to the football-crazed Texas town’s football coach, fights a losing battle between athletics and academics. There’s plenty of money and support for a new Jumbotron scoreboard for the football stadium in the down-and-out town. But not much for academics.


In Woodbury, the football field at the new high school, which opens next year, awaits the action. An enclosed press box and lights are part of the amenities. It sits in the shadow of spiffy — and expensive — new baseball diamonds, right next to more than a dozen baseball fields and soccer fields at the city’s Bielenberg sports complex.

In today’s economy, are these luxuries? Is there still a worthwhile purpose for high school sports?

Woodbury has not one, but two youth athletic leagues which run in-house and traveling programs for the major sports. Kids in the city have no shortage of avenues to sports participation. That’s not always the case, especially in rural areas of the state.

But a Star Tribune story offers a reminder why schools don’t want to get rid of sports, aside from their status as the most sacred of sacred cows. Minnesota allows open enrollment — school choices. They can go to school wherever they want. Tuesday’s story raised questions about whether some schools — Hopkins was the focus of the story — essentially employ “ringers.” If you don’t live in a district, or you only moved their to play sports — does the whole “community identity” excuse for high school sports still exist.

Woe be to the school district that doesn’t offer sports. Their athletic students will jump to another district, taking state funding with them.

Clearly, some district are looking to save money by cutting high school sports. The Minnesota State High School league, at the request of some central Minnesota school districts, considered reducing the number of games the schools play, eliminating classes and divisions in some sports, and getting rid of some tournament games. In the end, it decided to do nothing, at least not yet.

Mark Rusinko, a governor’s appointee to the Minnesota State High School League board of directors, suggested that if schools want to cut costs by cutting the number of games played, they could do so.

It’s a complicated process, Wally Shaver of Let’s Play Hockey pointed out. One school may save money by eliminating a game. Another school may lose $20,000 in gate receipts because of the lost game.

Some schools are raising the fees for participating. Others are scheduling sports doubleheaders so two sports teams can ride the same bus. But there’s tremendous pushback — especially in hockey — when the subject of reducing the number of games comes up.

But some districts have cut high school sports. Even the liberal Minnesota 2020, which might be expected to lead the cut-athletics-save-academics parade, lamented the loss of football, baseball, track, wrestling, and dance line in the Crosby Ironton district.

On Monday night, the school board in Marshall considered $600,000 in cuts. None of which — except for cheerleading, which was proposed for elimination — involved team sports programs.

Should school districts rethink the role of sports?

Let’s kick it around in the comments section.

  • jrolson1013

    High school sports are an important part of the fabric of most communities, especially those in more “rural” areas. Having grown up in a rural area myself, IMHO eliminating HS sports would be as damaging to the community psyche as a large business closing its doors.

    What is troubling, however, are those school districts that seemingly can divert hundreds of thousands of dollars to niceties such as domes and artificial turf fields on one hand, and then try to plead poverty and cut staff, cut programs, increase class sizes, ask for excess levy increases, etc. on the other. And local school boards wonder why excess levy referendums have become contentious in recent years.

  • krj

    Wow, I may be in the minority here, but here goes anyway.

    This issue needs to bring in the activity level of the people that have sports removed. Obesity is a problem. By removing sports and activities from high school, aren’t we eliminating something that can be very beneficial for the students in terms of long term health?

  • bsimon

    I didn’t realize ‘community identity’ was a justification for high school sports. I suppose I could see it as ‘community identity’ for the students, if the goal is to build school spirit & a sense of community among the student body. But is a high school supposed to now drive the community identity for a whole town, or neighborhood?

    Athletcis can be valuable, if they’re part of a student’s whole education. I’m a strong believer in the concept that not all lessons can be learned in the classroom. School athletics can teach kids a lot about following rules, working as part of a team, working towards a goal, etc. But when I look at the picture of the football facility for Woodbury – I have to wonder what the goals of such programs are? How many kids are benefitting from all the time & money that is apparently being bestowed on the football program?

  • Derek

    I am a relatively nerdy bookish type person. When I was in high school it was extremely frustrating to see new sports pavilions and fields go up while my art class had to pool our money so that we could buy canvas and paint. I realize that art classes don’t bring money into a school the way a sports team does but I don’t think that means non-sports programs should be ignored. It hurts a little to be passionate about something and realize that no one else thinks what you are doing has any value.

    Although I suppose that last sentence could be used to argue either side.

  • DJL

    Large school traveling sports are unnecessary and expensive. The opportunity to participate in athletics decreases with the size of the school. I agree in smaller, rural districts athletic participation can be an important part of the school experience but in larger districts it is uncommon for a student to participate in varsity athletics. Only the elite athletes (

  • DJL

    Can’t edit, here’s the rest:

    Only the elite athletes (less than 5%) are able to participate in varsity sports at larger schools. Many students transfer to charter/private schools in order to participate in athletics.

  • MKS

    I played volleyball in high school.We weren’t the best team in our section and most of us played because we loved it not to win championships. I learned more about leadership and being part of a team then I did in most of my regular classes. My teammates were my best friends.

    That being said, I can’t understand the millions spent on athletic fields and equipment when at the same time these very districts are complaining they have no money for books and supplies. I think the priorities may be getting a little skewed if a brand new football field is more important than students having textbooks that are current.

  • chris

    Eliminating sports is a terrible idea. Kids now rely on sports as a team building experience more and more. This sort of experience is harder to come by in the class room.

    Fitness – someone else allready articulated this better than I would have.

    Mostly, I just question whether professional facilities are needed for certain sports. To play football, I never needed a full color digital score board or a seperate building for coaches/trainers. I think the expense comes with the accessories not the activity.

    Think bleachers, not stadiums.

  • KBM

    High school sports bring together a diverse group of kids in a way that the classroom does not. Teams are comprised of kids from all grade levels, neighborhoods and of varying abilities. Off the field, it does the same for their parents. Sadly, most parents are engaged in the school only through athletics… but at least they become engaged and get to know other kids and their parents. That interest often lingers well past the time their child graduates.

    That said, sports teams have too few opportunities and can’t serve everyone. I saw that there was not even enough open gym time after school for intramural leagues. I’d prefer to see the state and school districts invest in the after school programs. Here again, kids of all abilities get a chance to get to know one another outside the classroom. The kids get really creative with forming their own teams, they get to burn off some energy, keep fit and socialize in a good way.

    Intramurals are also real life. Once most varsity athletes leave school, they won’t make it at the college level. Let’s prepare them for an active adulthood through affordable athletic games, starting young.

  • Bob

    I’ve always been unclear on the concept of what athletics has to do with education. Varsity sports can, but don’t necessarily, promote teamwork, cooperation, etc., but aren’t in and of themselves educational in nature, from my POV.

    I am not in favor of school districts spending money to field teams, for team travel, or for varsity sports infrastructure.

    Obesity in the student population is a problem, but that’s something best addressed through fitness programs and inculcating healthy eating habits, etc., not through varsity sports.

    Small towns may get their identity from school sports, but maybe they’d be better off finding something else on which to center their identity.

  • Joanna

    I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, as some have said, participating in sports has its own educational merits, and I’d add that it may be the main motivation some kids have for coming to school and making an effort in their classes. On the other hand, the skewed spending priorities are something we can no longer afford, not just in high schools, but at the U of MN and in the Twin Cities. There seem to be millions for stadiums, but not enough to pay for other, arguably more vital, priorities. My kid’s geometry teacher did not have enough books for all the students in the class. What’s up with that?

  • bsimon

    “My kid’s geometry teacher did not have enough books for all the students in the class. What’s up with that?”

    They could all sit in the bleachers & project the book on the jumbo-tron.

  • bigalmn

    I have long been an advocate for high school sports being available to the entire student population. Lets say a football team for every 500 students.

    The leadership lessons learned in sports is a valuable part of the education experience. Most of the basic facilities at schools are used for PE classes. The add ons, press boxes, scoreboards are usually paid for by booster clubs etc.

    Most schools today, especially the larger schools make fees or other donations cover the cost of the programs. When Burnsville hired a new athletic director a couple of years ago, one of his major jobs was fundraising to pay for the programs.

    Cutting sports in todays world yields little savings, but would put a large number of kids on the streets instead of playing the games.

    Schools really need to be organized differently in todays world and killing sports will not make that happen.

  • Jane

    I taught in an international school overseas. We had students from all over the world. The students from the US lagged way behind all others. In other countries school and learning is a priority for young people. They are expected to spend a certain amount of time each day in studies.

    Here, homework comes after friends, tv, computer games, jobs, and especially sports. Physical education is important equally with the arts, etc. But high school sports activities should come only after the students have spent a certain amount of time each day on studies. (like 8+ hours). And it should not come out of education dollars.