A Vindication of the Benefits of Sports

“I think sports are stupid.” – A whole bunch of people in the world have probably said this.

In my short period of time being a high school English teacher, wrestling, and football coach, as well as being a high school athlete once, I have seen many young athletes who come from various backgrounds. Some kids have both of their parents involved in their athletic lives, some kids deal with the economic hardships, and all of them come from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite their differences, what they share in common is that sports is a safe haven for them. It’s a place where it keeps them busy and out of trouble.

Being on a sports team and participating with a determined group of individuals can help kids stay out of trouble. Recently, I found an article in the Chicago Tribune titled, “CPS Must Add Girls’ Sports at 12 High Schools to Resolve Federal Probe.” It discussed how CPS has mandated the addition of more girls’ athletic programs to at least 12 high schools. And by the 2018-2019 school year, CPS must survey students on their athletic interests in order to add new sports or squads until all district high schools comply with a portion of federal regulations barring sex discrimination.

The article does not discuss how the addition of these sports will help keep kids off the streets and help them grow as individuals, but it made me think that now there are more young men and women out there with the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of sports.

For girls, specifically, sports can help to deemphasize beauty and offer more tangible role models.

Also, playing sports can keep young student athletes busy and off the streets away from gangs, drugs, and alcohol.

It can also help these kids maintain their grades because most schools have a strict policy regarding academics for those who play sports.

And, for these athletes, their sports also teach them essential life skills that they will need in order to navigate successfully through society.

Let’s talk about the girls first.


DISCLAIMER: As fabulous and feminist as I am, obviously, I am not a girl. I don’t have a daughter who plays sports or haven’t even coached a girls team in sports. My credibility as a young woman in society is nonexistent, so you can take my view on these issues with a grain of salt. However, I do work with young women and men every day as a teacher, coach, and mentor. I hope that gives me a shred of cred.


In relation to the article, participating in sports helps girls to deemphasize beauty and to simply be themselves. With the pressures society puts on girls to look a certain way or have a certain body type, sports display women of all different shapes and sizes and shows how successful they are in spite of society’s pressures. It is widely known that one of the main factors contributing to girls’ self-esteem issues is body image. Playing sports can help young women minimize the need to look a certain way. Realizing the power of physical competency is an important benefit for girls in society.

Sports also gives girls a wider range of role models instead of the typical movie stars and singers. With the rise in media attention of female mixed martial arts, mainly due to the popularity of fighter Ronda Rousey, girls have gained a role model who does not look nor act like your typical female role model. Rousey, the former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, has a thick, muscular frame and is a confident woman. She has made an impact like no other not only in the sport of MMA, but in mainstream media overall. In 2015, Rousey was the UFC’s highest paid fighter, male or female. In a society where males dominate the sport industry, Rousey is helping to pave the way for the women who aspire to become MMA fighters or partake in any other sport.

Ronda Rousey, along with Candice Parker, Helen Maroulis, and Serena Williams help to expand the pool of female role models from where young women can draw guidance and support. Serena, especially, has has done countless interviews and advocated for the importance of empowering yourself and live to your own standards. 

In 2015, Williams was chosen as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. She became the first solo female athlete to win the award. (Previous female winners, including Billie Jean King, Mary Lou Retton and skater Bonnie Blair all co-won the award with men. The last female winners, the 1999 U.S. women’s national soccer team, won as a group.) People were praising her cover photo, which is a pose Williams chose herself. Dressed in a black lace leotard, draped over a gold throne, Serena Williams resembled a queen: strong, powerful, and feminine all at once, which is exactly what the 23-time Grand Slam champion was going for, according to Sports Illustrated:

“I liked the idea of the throne. I said, ‘Listen, this needs to be something that no one forgets, something iconic! I wanted it to be really special … really Serena.’ When we went with that, I loved it.”

As a result, this goes to show that when woman can be themselves, women have power.

Serena has also become more involved in social change as her career has progressed, primarily using social media as a medium of expressing her views. In reference to a Twitter battle on the topic of the Black Lives Matter movement with American Tennis player Tennys Sandgren, Williams is responded, “I cant look at my daughter and tell her I sat back and was quiet. No! She will know how to stand up for herself and others through my example.” Serena Williams devout activism has created a new class of role models; one that exhibits strength and independence over beauty. As more young girls participate in sports, they are granted more opportunities to expand their view of women breaking feminine stereotypes.

 

Having a powerful role model can encourage kids to strive for greatness, but supportive adults are also important to the success of all youth. Kids in the urban public school systems, especially CPS, often lack a positive role model. David Carmichael, author of “Youth Sport vs. Youth Crime” says, “Many experts attribute the spike in youth crime to the increased number of street gangs…youth seek comfort from those who welcome them and reinforce their sense of belonging. Unfortunately, some youth have no choice but to turn to street gangs in order to satisfy their need for approval, belonging and self-worth” (Carmichael). But sports can help provide a setting with comfort and acceptance so they do not end up turning to street gangs, drugs, or alcohol to escape their tough lives.

In the surrounding areas of many urban public high schools, violent crimes, “foreground the persistent dangers and traumas confronting young people in our urban communities.” The most effective way to steer adolescents away from criminal undertakings is to engage them in more productive activities before they become too heavily involved in the wrong things. Organized sports programs can help to reduce the likelihood of teens being involved in criminal activities. Sports is a good way to keep a student busy and productive. The more unsupervised time a teen has, the more likely they are to fall in with the wrong crowd. Organized sports help to keep teens out of trouble by taking up time that could otherwise be used unproductively. It also gives teen’s higher self-esteem and an opportunity to meet new people with a positive influence.

It is no secret that today’s economically and socially at-risk urban teenagers are just as likely to get involved in criminal behaviors as they are to graduate from high school and become productive adults. There are many concerning factors that contribute to this situation, most of which are beyond a teenager’s control. What sports can do to remedy this tragedy is improve self-determination and the desire to succeed in all facets of life.

For example, in his book, What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade discusses the impact his Lady Wildcat Basketball Program had on his athletes while he taught at an urban high school. One of his former players named Nancy was cited saying:

When things started to go bad for me last year, all I had was this (LWBP) program. Every day I wondered if I was going to turn out like my older sister and brother. My sister was really smart, but she still dropped out, and my brother was really good at baseball and he dropped out…I want to keep fighting. I know I would have dropped out if it wasn’t for this program” (Duncan-Andrade 106).

Playing sports encourages athletes more so to do the right thing instead of refraining from the wrong things. For these adolescents, it opens doors for opportunities and helps to develop their sense of self-identity and self-worth. An open door, provided by sports, is enough for some young student athletes to begin to invest in themselves. Sports offers adolescents the feeling that someone cares for them, someone is cheering for them, and someone holds high expectations of them. If there is encouragement from institutional activities that are lacking in the family or community, sports is a place where an athlete knows, “they would have the support of those around them whether they succeeded or not” (Duncan-Andrade 39).

It is frequently documented that adolescent involvement in sports benefit their fitness and lowers risk of obesity. Although it is not mentioned as often, research points more toward the academic benefits of joining a sport. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Unified School District discovered a remarkable correlation between students’ participation in athletics and their performance in both attendance and in the classroom. According to the study, the “35,000 in the LAUSD who are on athletic teams…attended school 21 more days than the non-athletes [per year]…and also achieved between .55 and .74 higher grade-point averages than non-athletes” (Sondheimer). Being an athlete requires the students to use the high demands of being on an athletic team and transfer those habits into the classroom.  

Sports can help to improve academic performance in at-risk students because they must adhere to certain policies in order to stay on the team. In order to participate in most school sports, students must maintain a certain GPA, not fail any classes, and remain an upstanding citizen in the community. According to the Chicago Public Schools Policy Manual the requirements needed in order to be eligible to participate on a sports team are, “to have 25 credit hours (5 classes) of passing work during the previous semester and current semester” (CPS Policy Manual). In addition to that rule, student athletes must maintain a grade point average of 2.0. If they do not meet that standard, they are put on an Individual Study Plan (ISP) on a weekly basis in order to help the student with their academics. Also, the ISP must be approved by the principal or athletic director and be on file in the athletic office of the particular school. If a student fails to meet all of these requirements, they are ineligible to practice and play on a team for the following week. For some, sports inspires motivation within a student to improve academically because they have already established a work ethic that helps them overcome obstacles in their athletic lives. Others need this push from the athletic department in order to stay on top of their academics. Sometimes, a school needs strict guidelines in order to participate on a sports team because it motivates a student to perform well in the classroom as well on the field. Certain kids need this incentive to do well in class because there are students, especially in underfunded urban schools, who do not see a point in going to class at all.

Many urban public high schools are becoming increasingly subject to commercialized accountability mandates that control the school’s curriculum, discipline, and create automation throughout the school. This increases students’ disinvestment in their own education since they do not see genuine academic investment from their schools. The reason some students cut class is because, “it [gives] students a sense of autonomy and [lends] meaning to their experiences inside the school building.” Of course, athletics is not for everyone, but sports could offer these selective class cutting students a purpose of going to class and doing their best to succeed. Playing sports simply allocates a student time into a productive outlet by motivating them to do well academically in order to stay eligible to participate. On a different level, sports could offer a student, male or female, another pathway to a college education in a world that college may seem unattainable. Many universities have GPA requirements in order to be recruited for sports, so these policies in place that require an athlete to be the epitome of the “student athlete” prepare a student far beyond high school. Doing well in school and being successful in sports are both significant ways to help raise the self-worth of a student, especially in urban public high schools. These policies help to keep kids in the classroom and teaches them essential life skills that will become pertinent beyond their time in high school.

There is an ongoing debate about whether there is too much emphasis on competitive sports in today’s youth. Soccer moms juggling driving their kids to a multitude of extracurricular activities has shaped the way we look at the suburban lifestyle. Often overlooked is the influential role sports plays in the lives of the youth in low income urban neighborhoods. Participating in sports provides these urban student athletes with a valuable set of skills to help them navigate through society better. These skills include, “how to set priorities, manage an itinerary, shake hands with strangers, and work on a team.” Although these may be viewed as white-collar work skills, there are many other skills essential to any adolescent growing up.

Organized athletics can teach valuable life skills that young men and women can use in and out of an academic setting and beyond their years in high school. It cannot be assumed that sports itself will be a key influence in molding a student’s moral fiber. Nevertheless, with the proper reinforcement from the individuals involved in the sport, athletics can help to build character instead of creating characters. While athletics are not for everyone, they teach life skills, such as discipline, teamwork, and overcoming adversity, which will be important as an adult.

Sports teach an adolescent discipline in a way that is more enjoyable than most other strategies. In order to put the time in to prepare for a sport and perform at any high level, discipline is needed. It teaches that with the consciousness of what it takes to improve, palpable and intrinsic rewards can follow. The feeling of putting work into something and reaping the benefits of that hard work is a natural motivator to chase that feeling of success. This mentality can make up for most situations to where accomplishment may not be imminent. Sports teaches kids that in order to reach the goal a coach or the athletes themselves have set for them, they must put the work in and stay disciplined.

Another life lesson sports teaches is how to deal with sacrifice and work with a team. In order to be on a team and work cooperatively with others, sacrifices may be needed. They may have to give up playing video games for three hours a night or simply hanging out in the streets with people who are a bad influence. This teaches a student to let go of certain things that may not be helping them become successful young people in life. By being around others who have made that same sacrifice, the team is surrounded by an environment that values self-worth and achievement. Learning to work as a group is an essential life skill that teaches there are times the importance of a team supersedes individual needs or accomplishments.

Some athletes may see that as unfair, but there are many unfair situations that occur in life. The urban youth live in an unfair environment in and out of an educational setting. Sports can help to learn how to overcome certain adversities.  Athletes are faced with many failures both in practice and in competition. They can learn how to overcome strife and make every effort to attain their goals. The goal can range from becoming a starter on a team to learning how to be an upstanding citizen in their community. Sports teaches the youth that any failure is nothing but a temporary setback from which a lesson can be learn in order to improve or have a better chance of success the next time around. These skills, discipline, teamwork, and overcoming adversity, prepare students to handle the world around them and be ready for anything that life will throw at them.

In conclusion, sports can offer kids, especially the disadvantaged urban youth, a chance to overcome many cultural and socioeconomic problems as well as help them stay out of trouble. The key to this essay is not to over-simplify the role of sports in kids’ lives. Interscholastic sports programs can make a difference in some lives, but not all. It is obvious that student athletes will benefit the most from a program that invests long-term in each child, involves the families and community, and funds a multitude of services that increase an athletes chances of success. While many school districts struggle to address this need to improve sports programs, many schools did not have these programs in place from the start. The article this essay derives from is an example of how some urban students are only recently allowed the opportunity to join a sport program in their own school. The addition of more sports programs in urban public high schools is a great start, but requires a much broader engagement from the administration if sports are to remain a vehicle for improving the lives of disadvantages urban youth.

#ButStayWoke

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