In 2012, a high school in Texas spent $60 million to build the world’s largest high school football stadium. This stadium has a capacity of 18,000 spectators and was part of a blitz in which high schools throughout Texas were building extravagant sports stadiums. While one could shrug and say that, “Everything’s bigger in Texas,” this is actually representative of out-of-control spending on extracurricular sports and the effect this has on taxpayers, families, and communities.
New high school football stadium in Allen, Texas only cost $60 million. Was the money well spent? pic.twitter.com/oFyVWnQ5
— Michael Kinney (@EyeAmTruth) August 27, 2012
This problem is especially highlighted when schools have to make budget cuts. For instance, when the Gainesville High School in Florida announced plans to lay off five teachers in 2009 but didn’t make any cuts to its $1,111,572 budget for coaching supplements, the community exploded in understandable criticism. While it claims that most of the remaining expenditures for extracurricular sports programs are covered by ticket sales, that doesn’t change the fact that these sports programs lose money when ticket sales only amounted to $132,667 in 2009. Local taxpayers are on the hook for the rest.
Gainesville resident George Beasley explained the frustration of the Gainesville community, “You’ve heard about cuts in the classroom, nurse cuts, but you haven’t heard about sports cuts. And I’m talking statewide you haven’t heard about sports cuts. … I think there is too much priority on sports and not enough on education.”
This is a fair criticism when school districts and parents get too hyper focused on sports scholarships. Out of every year’s varsity sports teams, maybe two or three athletes out of every school district are offered a scholarship. These are usually the athletes who are capable of effectively carrying the entire team on their shoulders when playing their chosen sport. Even fewer high school athletes go on to compete at the professional level as adults. So why should schools invest so much money in their sports programs at a time when taxpayers and families with children are both calling for improvements in education so that their children can get a better value for their dollars?
Problem Not Limited To Schools
According to research conducted by the Utah State University, the average family spends up to of 10.5% of their gross income on their kids’ sports. According to researcher Travis Dorsch, this puts a considerable amount of pressure on kids to succeed at their sport.
“I’m fine with parents spending that kind of money [on their kids]. What’s wrong is when that investment brings out some sort of negative parent behavior. Or if the kid says mom and dad are spending $10,000 on me a year, what are they expecting in return? Is it a college scholarship? The chances are slim to none of a kid getting a scholarship.”
Steve Clarkson, a quarterback coach who founded the football camp Dreammaker Academy, backed up similar observations with some stats: “[T]here are three million high school players and by the time you scale that down to the quarterback position, there are a couple of hundred thousand starters. Then you get to Division I and II, and there are 360 quarterbacks. When you get to the NFL, there are 64. When you think about the odds, that’s not very good odds.”
When parents are making such a large investment, it should be no surprise that many of them engage in the “negative parent behavior” mentioned by Dorsch. For kids with parents who yell rude things from the stands and get in their faces after the game over a minor mistake, the game isn’t fun. It’s a chore that they’ve been forced into by their parents. They hate it and are less likely to play at a college level, let alone become professional athletes if they can’t enjoy the game as kids. Then parents are simply throwing their money down the tubes and will express nothing but disappointment in their “ungrateful” kids when they don’t get that scholarship.
So it would make sense that there are parents who are unwilling or unable to gamble on such long odds and may prefer to spend their money elsewhere if they can. Instead of a sports coach, parents may be more willing to spend the money on a math coach if their goal is to increase their children’s ability to earn a scholarship and they are aware of the long odds of gaining a sports scholarship.
What Can Be Done?
School board members won’t like the idea of suspending their districts’ sports programs. They’re the ones who have to listen to the howls of parents of children who aren’t academically brilliant but do decently as the quarterback of the football team. However, when one Virginia district that is struggling financially discovers that it could save $5.2 million just by cutting its varsity teams, then it becomes a matter of making fiscally responsible decisions that still make it possible for high school students to graduate in four years, avoid cutting educators and programs that are more academically valuable to children, and avoid raising property taxes. And most voters do not like the idea of raising property taxes, especially when they don’t have kids in public school, let alone have a stake in keeping school sports programs.
As importantly, excellence in academics should be prioritized over athletic talent. Most states already require that students take four years of Physical Education classes to graduate. Any extracurricular athletic activities should be considered exactly that: extracurricular. Extracurricular activities should be the first things to go if a school needs to make budget cuts, even if it means that students lose out on an activity that is not critical to their future success. Yes, teachers will lose out on the extra money they get for coaching, but that can be made up for by giving teachers an across-the-board bump in pay to make up for it. (Why do schools not hire licensed sports trainers for the job, anyway?!)
Students should not feel like they’re going to be held back socially and academically if they are not very good at sports, or feel like their achievements are any less valuable if those achievements have nothing to do with athletics. If kids can win a chess tournament or a Scholastic Bowl championship, then their trophies should be displayed in the same trophy case as the football and basketball championship trophies. That eliminates the perceived need for participation trophies for kids who try but can’t win at one particular activity because it acknowledges that kids who aren’t good at sports can usually excel at other, more academically oriented activities.
What it boils down to is that school districts are spending millions of dollars on extracurricular sports teams and parents are spending up to 10.5% of their gross income on sports-related activities and coaching for their kids. That has the effect of creating unreasonable expectations for kids who probably won’t get a sports scholarship or become professional athletes. The emphasis on sports also leaves out the children who may be brilliant academically, but aren’t very good at athletics. This drain on resources that have been earmarked for education is not something that should be ignored during discussions of how to improve our public education system and address the pressures that financially strapped school districts routinely face.