We Should be Concerned

Peyton Manning’s 7 TD, 450-yard passing performance the other night leads me to believe that this NFL season will be one of the best yet, as the league’s talent level among both players and coaches has never been higher. That’s a statement that could get me hissed at by some old people who think the game peaked with Johnny Unitas or Dan Marino, but I stand by it. But the recent massive settlement the NFL reached with former players about the still-not-totally understood ramifications of football-related concussions reveals that all’s not well in the NFL, and watching the first game the other night was enough to make me queasy: heads snapping back and forth after guys took massive hits; knees bending the wrong way as three-hundred-pound men undercut other three-hundred-pound men; and subtler blows on every play that could be stripping these men of the ability to function later in life. Football is a nasty, awful sport that no kid of mine will play. And, of course, I’ll watch every game I can this year. Call me a hypocrite. It fits.

I have no time for people who hate on sports or act like they aren’t a significant part of what constitutes a culture. You’re allowed to be uninterested, but not dismissive. In general, Americans love sports, and in this way we’re not unlike people in other countries. However, our relationship with sports is uniquely screwed up. In a short and smart “Daily Comment” over at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert thinks about the ramifications of the fact that sports play such a central role at many American high schools. She writes:

…I was watching my fourteen-year-old twins play soccer. It was the day before school began, but they had already been going to J.V. soccer practice two hours a day for nearly two weeks. I wondered what would have happened if their math teacher had tried to call them in two weeks before school started to hold two-hour drill sessions. My sons would have been livid, as would every other kid in their class. Perhaps even more significant, I suspect that parents would have complained. What was the math teacher doing, trying to ruin the kids’ summer? And why should they have to make a special trip to the high school so their kids could study trig identities?

As she makes clear, we miss the point when we worry about or praise the effect of playing sports on a kid’s academic performance. What we should be concerned about is the messages we send when we make sports seem like a stitch that holds the fabric of education together. It isn’t true. In other countries, people who are excellent at sports are paid from young ages to train and entertain. And other kids either throw pickup games together. In the U.S., kids are taught to do it for their schools. For free. Who cares if the schools they’re doing it for aren’t giving them rigorous educations? FOOTBALL!

Obviously, this problem continues on past high school into higher education, where it gets even smarmier. Major college football and basketball programs serve as de facto minor leagues for the NFL and NBA, and small college programs exist to entice alums to donate money. There’s nothing essential to the educational mission of a university about a football program sending hundreds of people on chartered flights to go give concussions to kids at another school. And yet today I’m sure I will find myself watching several college football games . Again, hypocrite. Meanwhile:

Poland is a surprising educational success story: in the course of less than a decade, the country raised students’ test scores from significantly below average for the developed world to significantly above it; Polish kids now outscore American kids in math and science, even though Poland spends, on average, less than half as much per student as the United States does. One of the most striking differences between the high school Tom attended in Gettysburg and the one he ends up at in Wroclaw is that the latter has no football team, or, for that matter, teams of any kind.

Nothing to see here, folks. Enjoy the games.




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