In College Classrooms, the Problem Is High-School Athletics
If we learned anything from college sports in the past year, it is that no scandal, however large or grotesque, will derail the runaway locomotive of big-time athletics. Not the Great Tattoo Coverup at Ohio State. Not the shenanigans at Miami. Not even the horrors of the Penn State locker room.
Desperate for a feel-good sports story amid the cascade of corruption, the news media found Yale’s star quarterback, Patrick Witt, and his coach, Tom Williams. Witt, you will recall, made the difficult and, to many, admirable choice to play his last Harvard-Yale game, thus forgoing his interview for a Rhodes Scholarship. He was counseled in that decision by Coach Williams, who had done something similar while a player at Stanford. Both halves of that tear-jerking tale, of course, turned out to be untrue.
What I noticed about the Witt story as it went bad was a point buried below the revelations about the Rhodes: Patrick and his older brother, Jeff, had repeatedly transferred from high school to high school (and from Atlanta to Dallas) to find the right football match. We have become numbingly accustomed to college athletes’ treating their campuses as minor-league training grounds before jumping to the NFL or the NBA. Witt, or his parents, treated his high-school education in exactly the same way, shopping around for the best “program” to hone and highlight his football-throwing skills.
The Witt brothers’ trajectory is unusual, no doubt. So, too, is the new football stadium built during 2011 in Allen, Tex.—complete with a two-tiered press box and a monster video scoreboard in high def. At 18,000 seats, it isn’t even the largest high-school stadium in Texas, although its $60-million price tag is certainly Texas-sized.
Still, Witt’s story—and the construction of the bloated Allen High stadium—reveals an athletics trickle-down process. As professional sports grew into a multibillion-dollar enterprise, colleges followed suit. Small programs grew big; big programs grew huge, all chasing ESPN glory and cash. So, in turn, high-school athletics programs grow, emulating their big siblings on campuses.
There is a widespread consensus that our public-education systems are in serious trouble. But amid the conflicting diagnoses of the problem—teacher training, standardized testing, socioeconomic conditions—we have missed this obvious one: The growth of high-school athletics over the past generation has necessarily meant fewer resources devoted to academics, especially in the zero-sum budgetary environment of so many school districts. How many other educational systems pay for sports out of their education funds?
The issue isn’t simply money. Perhaps more important, the growth of high-school athletics has resulted in more time than ever spent by students in practicing and competing. Basketball games played on school nights (with travel time, if they’re away games), swimming and gymnastics “invitationals” that draw kids from hundreds of miles and last all weekend. And the proliferation of summer sports camps. In one of his pleadings as president of the NCAA, even the late Myles Brand complained to The New York Times, “The youth sports culture is overly aggressive.”
American higher education bears some measure of the responsibility for that. There are doubtless a number of reasons that high-school sports follows the lead of college sports in becoming more professionalized. Chief among them, however, is that kids and their parents increasingly believe that accumulating varsity letters is a better way to get to college—and certainly a better way to pay for college—than academic achievement.