Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

The impact of sports, however, can't be measured simply in financial terms, and there are in fact a great many hidden dollars in the sports budget. That 1 percent figure, for instance, is true only if you are talking strictly about annual dollar amounts--and only at the district level. The state subsidizes sports to the tune of more than $100 million a year--a sum that doesn't include taxpayer bailouts of unprofitable sports arenas. A recent Pi Press article noted that of the $106 million legislators allocated to sports last year, $88.2 million was earmarked directly for the public schools. This money comes right off the top of the education budget, and since it is spent on a statewide basis, it never shows up on the books of local districts as a sports-related expense. The sum of $88.2 million is hardly a budget-buster in a total state education fund of $3.3 billion, but if the amount were earmarked instead for staff salaries at a reasonable $20,000 per teacher, Minnesota districts could afford to hire more than 4,400 additional teachers. It's hard to believe that wouldn't make a measurable difference in the performance of students statewide.

The mania for sports nibbles at the education dollar in ways even harder to trace, particularly as part of capital expenditures. A new high school includes the cost of the 50 acres typically devoted to athletics, not to mention the cost of equipping it with everything from bleachers to high-jump pits. Athletics has a similar impact on the costs of building construction. Many high schools are now built without auditoriums because eliminating the wide-span roof and specialized furnishings represents a significant economy. But all new high schools still include a gymnasium, with an even higher, wider roof and its own requirements for specialized furnishings. Throw in maintenance, and maybe a hardwood floor in some of the better-off suburban districts, and you are beginning to talk about real money--none of which shows up on the district's annual athletic budget.

The costs associated with athletics can be even more intangible than that. Many districts carry at least one teacher whose presence in the classroom can only be explained by his success as a coach. Nowadays, coaching skills are almost a standard part of the job description for any teaching opening, and being able to coach usually confers a hiring preference regardless of how good the other applicants are at chemistry or math.

The passion for athletics manages to subvert even efforts at academic reform. Open enrollment, beloved by conservatives out of a misguided notion of how competition works in schools, is now a fact of scholastic life in many states, including Minnesota. It has generated no demonstrable improvement in the academic quality of schools, but it has created athletic superpowers within the high school system. Talented athletes now regularly jump school and district boundaries to play for the best teams under the tutelage of the best coaches in front of the most college and professional recruiters. The tendency of professional sports to colonize high-powered college programs has now pushed down to the high school level. Duluth East and Bloomington Jefferson dominate large-school hockey. In basketball, Hopkins and North are perennial powers. Sports-crazy Stillwater and Rochester Mayo are also chronic contenders in several sports, from girls' basketball to football and skiing.

Athletes also receive extensive support outside the school system. The minute an urban youth displays unusual athletic ability, he is plugged into an extensive network run by private groups, professional sports organizations, and, of course, college athletic programs. Most successful college coaches run a battery of weekend clinics and summer camps for talented youngsters. It's the first step in the ritual mating dance of recruiting, an opportunity for young athletes to get top-drawer training and become friendly with the coach, and a chance for the coach to assess and woo the talent pool. The best high school players also have a chance to perfect skills in a variety of amateur leagues that range from American Legion baseball to high-powered Amateur Athletic Union teams. If an infrastructure this elaborate locked on target every time an inner-city kid did well on a math test, African Americans would be stereotyped as natural physicists.

Instead, what comes out of the system is a small group of youngsters who manage to buck the athletic tide, a lot with no useful skills at all, and a very few with advanced and specialized expertise in sports. Khalid El-Amin is simply one of this handful of youngsters with athletic skills and knowledge beyond their years. Before he finally passed the ACT this spring, rumors circulated in the Twin Cities dailies that if he couldn't hack the test, he would follow a growing trend among academically deficient high school "superstars" by declaring himself available for the NBA draft. The practice was rare until two years ago, when the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett, after repeatedly failing the ACT, signed a guaranteed multimillion dollar contract straight out of Farragut Academy, a Chicago high school that has gained national notoriety for producing nothing but athletes. And for the first time last year, two high school players--Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal--entered the draft.

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