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Why Sports Should Be Expelled From US Schools

I have such a love/hate relationship with the Internet. After the rigmarole that is getting three kids under 5 ready for their days each morning, and before starting work in earnest, I look forward to logging on while sipping a coffee, checking email, reading the news and, of course, skimming my Facebook feed.

Inevitably, I see or read something that—call it mommy hormones or simply having a soul—crushes my heart and makes me want to crawl back into bed.

Case in point: the despicable parent in Kansas who protested that a special needs' student at his kid's school was wearing a varsity letter jacket and, consequently, had the student (literally) stripped of the privilege.

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Principal Ken Thiessen concurred, saying it was "not appropriate" for Michael Kelley, who has Down syndrome and autism and plays basketball on his school's special needs team, to wear the jacket because he does not participate in "varsity level competition."

I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure the level of mental courage and physical strength that it takes for a kid with Down syndrome and autism to participate in a team sport is a, hands down, varsity-earning, Olympic-medal-worthy freaking triumph.

Anyone who would deny a child with special needs such a low-stakes gesture of acknowledgment—and the feelings of normality and belonging Michael got from wearing that jacket—has his priorities irrevocably messed up. But I think it's part of a bigger problem: why do American high schools put such an emphasis on varsity sports anyway?

Athletics for kids are a good idea, obviously. Studies show strong links between participating in sports and higher self-esteem and improved academic performance. Girls who play sports statistically have healthier body images and lower chance of unwanted pregnancies. It's great that children play sports. But why is it so embedded in American schools?

[W]hen we further take the time to differentiate between which athletes are the "real" athletes, which are granted the honor of representing their school with a letter jacket, it has the potential to reverse the positive effects sports can have on children.

The financial investment alone is staggering. While art, music and physical education programs are increasingly cut across the country, American schools in some areas continue to spend more tax dollars on sports than on basic education.

Marguerite Roza, author of "Educational Economics," found that a public high school in the Pacific Northwest was spending $328 a student for math instruction yet investing $1,348 in each of its cheerleaders. "And it is not even a school in a district that prioritizes cheerleading," Roza wrote. "In fact, this district's 'strategic plan' has for the past three years claimed that math was the primary focus."

I get the school spirit angle, but we so heavily celebrate only one facet of the student body when we make it all about sports. There are no pep rallies for yearbook staff or debate team. And when we further take the time to differentiate between which athletes are the "real" athletes, which are granted the honor of representing their school with a letter jacket, it has the potential to reverse the positive effects sports can have on children.

I attended an international school in the Netherlands, along with many American children of military parents. Though technically "international," it was really very American—German, Dutch and British students attended one section, and the Americans and Canadians another.

It was a small school—like, my graduation class was in the double digits—so it was comparatively not that hard to make a sports team as in a larger school. I lettered in cross country, track, soccer, basketball, softball and volleyball—and then I went on to an arts and communication college that had no kind of athletic program whatsoever.

Playing sports as a teen was an excellent experience. We traveled to cities all over Europe to compete, kept fit, developed friendships and learned sportsmanship and committment to a common goal. All good stuff.

I like the idea that schools here are just about that: school.

But would an average athlete like me—it was never going to earn me a scholarship—have gained more from a school that allocated funds to better art programs or clubs, something I might have excelled in and applied more in my adult life and left the athletics to our community leagues?

As a blatantly hypocritical aside, my first piece of journalism ever was an editorial for my high school newspaper arguing that student team managers should not receive varsity letters, as was the policy then, because they were not athletes. Mea culpa.

In the Netherlands, athletics are important, but they are separate from the schools. Children join football and hockey leagues locally, which creates other issues: the clubs can be expensive (parents buy the uniforms and pay membership—although there are some funding assistance programs) and placements are sometimes limited.

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Still, I like the idea that schools here are just about that: school. Sports are not a distraction or a social status winner (or loser). Basic educational needs should be met for all kids before thousands of dollars are spent accommodating the activities of a select few students.

Children learn a lot from participating in organized sports. I believe that. But they can't learn much good from a principal who fails to support and nurture the courage and spirit of a special needs student and, instead, reinforces the idea that physical strength and winning are the only attributes worthy of acknowledgment.

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Image by Tracy Brown Hamilton

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