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School Sports


Robert M. Malina

Sharon Shields
Elizabeth Gilbert


School sports refer to athletic programs in the context of the school setting. They refer most often to interschool competition at the middle/junior high school and high school levels in the United States. Interschool programs at the elementary level vary among communities. School sports also include intramural competition, but such programs are very rare. In the mid-1990s, intramural sports involved only about 450,000 middle, junior, and senior high school students, or 3 percent of the high school–aged population.

Purposes of School Sports

The objective of school sports is the enrichment of the high school experiences of students within the context of the educational mission of schools. As such, school sports should be educational and contribute to the overall education of all students, not athletes only. Other objectives of school sports logically follow from the educational mission: citizenship, sportsmanship, fair play, teamwork, respect, and health and welfare of all students not only during the school years but continuing into adulthood.

Origins of School Sports

Two major forces were involved in the development of interscholastic sports in the United States: the school program, specifically physical education, and students. The initial focus was almost exclusively on boys. Within the school program, Luther Gulick established the New York Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL) in 1903, and similar leagues were organized in 177 cities by 1915. The purpose was to encourage a healthy, strong body and mind through competitive exercises. The PSAL initially conducted "class athletics" in grades five through eight at specific times each year, not interschool competition as it is known today. Class athletics included seasonal track and field events (fall, standing long jump; winter, chinning the bar; spring, running sprints). PSALs also emphasized swimming, popular sports of the times (baseball, football, basketball), and several minor games.

Interscholastic high school sports for boys had their origins in student organizations in the 1880s. They were motivated in part by intercollegiate sports, especially football, baseball, and track and field. Activities of sports clubs attracted the attention of administrators and faculty, who had major reservations about the time and energy devoted to sports and effects on the schools, including the small number of boys involved, quality of coaching (clubs often hired their own coaches), unsportsmanlike conduct, use of "ringers" (nonstudents, professionals), outof-town travel, length of schedule, interference with school work, lack of carry-over value, injury (especially in football), and emphasis on winning, among others. Although the welfare of high school athletes was a major issue, more important, perhaps, was concern of faculty and administrators for the reputations of the schools and the perceived need for adult control. These factors contributed to the formation of state high school athletic associations, such as those in Michigan (started in 1895) and Indiana (1903). State associations in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin formed the Midwest Federation of State High School Athletic Associations in 1921, which became the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations in 1923. The name was subsequently changed to the National Federation of State High School Associations in the 1970s when the fine arts were established as a program area.

Two important factors in the acceptance, or perhaps tolerance, of interscholastic sports by administrators and faculty were the scholastic performance of boys and school retention. Boys did not do as well as girls in school, dropped out more often than girls did, and were commonly behind in grade level. Between 1890 and 1920, the majority of public school students (56%–58%) and graduates (61%–65%) were girls. Child labor and compulsory schooling laws, which were passed early in the twentieth century, contributed to increased school attendance.

A related factor was the emergence of progressive education and how it addressed the needs and problems of boys in a coeducational setting. The percentage of women teachers in high schools increased (65% in 1920), and an important role was attributed to interscholastic sports in meeting the needs of boys in this context. Educators "sought to instill a more masculine tone and temper in the schools, in part by co-opting the informal interscholastic athletics that the boys themselves had created" (Tyack and Hansot, p. 166).

Interscholastic sports spread rapidly from the 1930s through the 1950s, at a time when the medical and physical education communities were opposed to competitive sports for elementary and junior high, and occasionally high school, students. Sport opportunities for females also increased, but school sports were largely the domain of males. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which was implemented in 1975, increased sport opportunities for girls.


The estimated number of participants in high school sports from 1971 to 2000 is illustrated in Figure 1. While the number of students enrolled in high school declined from the late 1970s to 1990, the number of athletes was rather stable after a slight decrease, 3.3 to 3.5 million males and 1.7 to 1.9 million females. Since 1990, numbers of high school students and athletes increased, but the increase in athletes was somewhat less in males (3.4 to 3.9 million) than in females (1.9 to 2.7 million). The larger increase in females reflected implementation of Title IX legislation and increased interest in sports for girls.

As a percentage of total students in grades nine through twelve, the number of male athletes was, with few exceptions, rather stable between 24 percent and 26 percent from 1971 to 2000 (see Figure2). The percentage of female athletes increased from 2 percent in 1971 to 10 percent in 1975 and then more gradually from 12 percent in 1978 to 18 percent in 1999–2000. As a percentage of male athletes, the number of female athletes increased from 8 percent in 1971 to 53 percent in 1980 and then more gradually to 69 percent in 1999–2000.

Reported participation in high school sports in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) is consistent with trends in Figure 2. Weighted percentages of youth reporting participation in high school sports only in 1997 were 24.0 percent for males and 23.9 percent for females (see Table 1). Relatively more white males and females reported participating in school sports only than Hispanic and black males and females, and relatively more Hispanic students reported participating in school sports than black students. The YRBS also included nonschool sports. More males than females reported participation in both school and nonschool sports and the ethnic difference between black and white males was reversed. Participation in both school and nonschool sports is an issue among state high school associations, largely in terms of the time demands on youth as well as increasing demands and pressures from nonschool sport organizations for year-round participation in a single sport.

Corresponding estimates for other countries are not available. Intramural and to a lesser extent interschool sports competition are offered in some countries, but highly developed interscholastic sports programs as in the United States are not available. Most sports are organized in the context of specific clubs independent of the schools.

Popular Sports

The ten most popular sports for boys and girls based on numbers of schools offering the sports in 1999–2000 are summarized in Table 2. Data for 1989–1990 are included for comparison. The most popular sport offerings have changed little. Competitive spirit squads replaced indoor track and field for girls. Soccer showed the largest gains over ten years, 99 percent in girls and 42 percent in boys. The same pattern was apparent for golf, 75 percent in girls and 26 percent in boys. With the exception of football


(down 5%), all sports showed an increase in offerings over ten years.

Corresponding statistics for the ten most popular sports for boys and girls based on numbers of participants are summarized in Table 3. Football had the largest number of participants among boys, followed by basketball. Over the ten year interval, the number of participants in the top ten sports for boys increased and several sports changed rank. Baseball and wrestling declined, while track and field and soccer gained. The number of boys participating in soccer increased by about 50 percent in ten years. Other sports for boys that showed significant gains were golf (35%), outdoor track and field (18%) and cross country (17%).

Among girls, the number of participants in competitive spirit squads replaced golf in the top ten. The ranking of the top four sports (basketball, track and field, volleyball, and softball) did not change, while soccer moved to fifth. The number of participants in soccer increased by 142 percent, followed by fast pitch softball (67%), swimming and diving (63%), and cross country (47%). Overall and within the same or similar sports, relative increases in female participants were greater than corresponding increases in males.


Issues in School Sports

Although interscholastic sport program are popular, they are not without problems. Some are inherent to sports (such as injuries), whereas others span a range of issues.

Safety and injuries. Concern for the health and welfare of high school athletes is a primary objective of interscholastic programs. Nevertheless, risk of injury is inherent to sports. Comparison of injury rates for five sports in males (baseball, basketball, football, soccer, wrestling) and five sports in females (basketball, field hockey, soccer, softball, volleyball) during the 1995–1997 school years indicated the following trends (see Table 4). Football had the highest and baseball the lowest injury rates among the five sports for boys, whereas soccer had the highest and volleyball the lowest rates of injuries among the five sports for girls. Except for volleyball, injury rates were higher during games than practices in both genders. Sprains and strains, general trauma (including contusions), and fractures accounted for most of the injuries. About 90 percent of all reported injuries were new.

Estimated injury rates (per 100 athletes) in similar or the same sports were higher in girls than in boys for softball/baseball and soccer, but virtually identical for basketball. Rates of knee injuries were higher in female basketball and soccer players compared to male athletes in these sports, but only slightly more common in softball than in baseball players. Knee injuries required surgery more often in females than in males, and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery was especially more common in female basketball and soccer players than in male participants in these sports. The higher incidence of ACL injuries in adolescent and adult female athletes is well documented, and the issue of predisposing factors is an area of current study.

Among inherent risks in sport is the risk of death. Although deaths in sport are rare at young ages, they receive considerable media attention. Estimated rates for nontraumatic sport deaths in high school and college athletes thirteen to twenty-three years of age are less than one per 100,000 participants per year, but the ratio of males to females is about ten to one. Rates are higher among college than high school male athletes. Nontraumatic deaths in sport are due primarily to cardiovascular causes, but several noncardiovascular causes are also involved, including hyperthermia, electrocution due to lightning, and complications of asthma. These are preventable conditions. Corresponding data for traumatic deaths in high school athletes are less than one per 100,000 participants.

Carry-over. Benefits of participation in interscholastic sports should presumably carry over to other aspects of life during adolescence. Data from the YRBS indicate associations between sports participation and positive health behaviors related to physical activity, diet, cigarette smoking, illegal drug use, and reduced sexual intercourse (females). Associations were strongest for white and less consistent for black and Hispanic high school students. Other data indicate positive associations between sports participation and educational (higher grades, lower drop-out rates) and social (leadership roles, self-assurance) behaviors. Data relating high school sports participation to adult behaviors are generally lacking. Consequences of sport injuries for health in adulthood also need study.

Coaches and coach education. Qualifications for coaches vary among states and school districts. Many states and districts require coaches to have a teaching certificate, but there apparently is a lack of teachers with either an interest in coaching or the necessary credentials. As a result, an increasing number of coaches are not teachers and do not have faculty status. Nonteacher coaches are commonly required to complete a coach education program that includes principles of growth and development, coaching (theory, methods, psychology), and training (conditioning, nutrition); injury prevention, management and care; CPR and sports first aid; and risk management. Available courses vary in depth of content and mode of delivery. Coach education is required for nonteachers in 35 states and the District of Columbia and for all coaches in 15 states, but is not required in 15 states.

There is a lack of uniform standards for coaches education, although a comprehensive set has been recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. Professional coach education programs analogous to the systematic preparation and certification of teachers are not available in the United States.

Programmatic issues. School sport programs are currently affected by a number of issues, including schools that focus on a single sport ("rogue schools," "factories"); emphasis on "nationally ranked programs," which implies national travel during the school year; recruiting, especially for summer basketball; increasing numbers of international students; and threats to amateurism. International students are often concentrated in rogue schools for basketball and reported ages are commonly questioned. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has already foregone the rules of amateurism, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) may be moving in this direction.

High school programs generally emphasize competition and program success rather than developing skills for the next level of athletic competition. In contrast, many national sport governing bodies emphasize talent identification, development, and medals, and prefer that talented youth be passed along to a higher level of coaching and training than at the high school level. Talent identification programs in many sports are not consistent with objectives of school sports.

College scholarships. Unrealistic expectations for sport success beyond high school plague many programs and college scholarships are a major issue. The probability of receiving a college athletic scholarship is small. Of approximately three million


eighth graders in 1988, only about 5 percent later reported participation in intercollegiate sports and only about 2 percent were in Division I schools. The number was further reduced when only those who received athletic financial aid was considered. Only 48 percent of all NCAA Division I athletes received athletic aid (scholarships) in 1992–1993.

The lure of college scholarships, especially for basketball and football, has resulted in widespread scouting at the middle or junior high school levels and commercially sponsored prep school football combines analogous to the National Football League. In the context of competition with professional leagues, the NCAA is also discussing a mentoring program for elite athletes as young as 12 years, specifically for basketball. One can question whose interests are best being served by such programs and their consistency with educational objectives of high school sports. Probability of success in sport beyond college is even more remote.

Violence. Violence at sporting events involving participants, coaches, and spectators is increasingly reported. The violence reflects interactions among several factors, including overemphasis on winning, lack of administrative supervision, lack of respect for authority, inconsistent officiating, social inequities in schools, and perhaps parental and community overinvolvement. Violence is also routinely tolerated and sanctioned in several highly popular sports, specifically ice hockey and football, and occasionally basketball and soccer (e.g., "professional fouls"). Respect


for opponents and sport and sportsmanship need stronger emphasis if the educational objectives of sport are to be attained.

Sport was allegedly a focus of attention in the violence that occurred in Littleton, Colorado, in the spring of 1999. The perpetrators of the violence allegedly identified athletes as targets and were described as being on the fringe of the high school social circles. These events raise important issues related to the preferential position and treatment of varsity athletes and the marginalization of some students by the social structure of high schools. Varsity sport is exclusive and schools offer few, if any, opportunities for youth who are not sufficiently skilled or who lack the size required for some sports. Schools and communities often indulge in varsity athletes in major sports and rank them among the socially elite. Administrators and coaches often tolerate unacceptable behaviors of athletes (physical, verbal, and social bullying; criminal activities), giving athletes a different status compared to other students. "Trash talk" and the "in-your-face" demeanor of many sports, which are essentially forms of non-physical violence, are commonly treated by coaches, administrators, and commentators as a form of strategy or "sport smarts." Does such verbal abuse contribute to poor sportsmanship, lack of respect for opponents and the sport, and physical violence? The data are suggestive.

Nonschool sports. Programs for talented young athletes (and by extension some coaches) to participate in a sport after the school season, but during the school year and in the summer, have expanded recently. High school eligibility can be compromised and young athletes face the risk of overtraining, injury, and exploitation. Some programs also compete directly with school sports. This is perhaps most apparent in elite youth soccer clubs that call for year-round training in the sport following the professional model. Further, professional soccer teams in the United States (in contrast to other professional sports) have signed players still in high school, a practice that is common in soccer and other sports throughout the world.

Students with disabilities. Most public schools practice inclusion of students with a disability in intramural and interscholastic sports programs according to the provisions of the Americans with


Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Disability accommodations depend upon the individual needs of the student.


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The role of sport in society, and more particularly in schools, has been debated for many decades. There are divergent viewpoints on the value of sport, with proponents on one end of the continuum hailing sport as having the same goals and objectives as all of education and on the other end those who purport that sport is an entertainment enterprise that should be separated from education altogether.

A Brief Historical Perspective

The development of organized sports and games in the United States has had an interesting history. Early settlers in the United States brought some games with them, but there was a minimal amount of organized athletics in communities and none in the schools until near the middle of the nineteenth century. Very little is known about the early history of sport development, but most authorities agree on the historical evolution of the major American sports that were developed in the eighteenth century. The first organized baseball team was founded in 1845, and the first college game was played between Amherst and Williams in 1859. The game of American football originated from soccer and rugby; the first game is claimed to have occurred in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. James Naismith created the game of basketball in 1891 to fill a need for play and sport during long winter months. Sports received mixed reviews, as the activities were usually conducted by citizens on a volunteer basis or by unsupervised high school and university students. By 1879 a need arose for systemization of sport and for a governing agent to oversee sports in the United States, which resulted in the formation of the Amateur Athletic Union in 1888. In 1906 the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was founded as an outgrowth of meetings held by twenty-eight of the nation's colleges.

The NCAA and AAU have remained powerful governance boards in regulating college and all other amateur sports in America. As girls and women entered the sport arena, the formation of the National Association of Girls and Women in Sport in 1899 was instrumental in providing sound sport opportunities for all girls and women in a variety of sports at the elementary, high school, and collegiate levels. In 1971, with the impending passage of Title IX, representatives from 278 colleges and universities formed the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which governed women's intercollegiate sports until a takeover by the NCAA in 1981. The AIAW began to level the playing field for girls and women in sport. For the first time in American history, women's sports began to rival men's programs in the number of contests held, which increased the amount of publicity given to women's sports. When the NCAA took over as the governing body of women's intercollegiate athletics, it inherited a new era in women's participation. In 1971, only 31,000 women were engaged in varsity sports; a decade later there were 70,000, and the numbers have continued to escalate significantly.

In the United States, participation in organized sports has become a common rite of childhood. At the beginning of the twentieth century, agencies and schools provided sport opportunities as a means of providing wholesome leisure time activities for children and youth. Prior to 1954, most of these experiences occurred in Boys and Girls Clubs, Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCA), Young Women's Christian Associations (YWCA), Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. With the inception of Little League Baseball in 1954, sport for youth moved from social agencies and activities organized by youth themselves to adult-organized sport programs. In the early twenty-first century, schools have organized teams primarily for the "athletically elite," often to the exclusion of the majority of students. Opportunities for youth to engage in sport remain unequal across genders and social class.

The debate continues as to the value of sport in education. Sport is ingrained in society as both an educational fixture and an entertainment enterprise. The argument continues as to whether or not sport holds valued benefits for its youth and young adult participants and therefore warrants a prominent place in the educational system.

Benefits of Sports to a Child's Development

A wide spectrum of outcomes has been attributed to modern-day sports and play. Critics have condemned sport for fostering excessive violence, an overemphasis on competition and winning, and the exploitation of individuals. Sport proponents have extolled the value of sport as a contributor to health, personal fulfillment, and community integration.

It is important to look at how sport has the potential for producing positive outcomes in educational and noneducational settings for children and youth. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has proposed a model for systematically assessing the potential positive outcomes of sports and the conditions necessary to produce them. The Csikszentmihalyi model is based on the premise that four main types of consequences are of importance when examining and/or evaluating any sport activity. Two of these consequences are present at the individual level: personal enjoyment and personal growth; and two are at the community level: social harmony/integration and social growth/change. In relation to this model, an ideal sport activity is one that contributes in significant ways to all four types of outcomes.

Leonard Wankel and Philip Kreisel have identified five factors that should be present for a child or youth to experience the benefit of personal enjoyment in sport: personal accomplishment, excitement of the sport, improving one's sports skills, testing one's skills against others, and just performing the skills. These factors are thought to contribute most to the enjoyment of sport.

Personal growth includes a variety of physical and psychological factors. Physical health can be maintained and improved through sport participation by enhancing the cardiovascular system; improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels; increasing muscular strength; improving muscular endurance, flexibility, and bone density; and weight management. Because sports are a major type of activity in which children and youth are involved, it is considered a viable method of promoting good health. Lifetime sports, such as golf, tennis, swimming, and cycling, are especially beneficial in meeting nationally established health objectives. Early childhood participation in sport can minimize the emphasis on competition and focus on skill instruction. However, sports may not be a sufficient substitute for physical education programs in the schools. Quality physical education curriculums that have developmentally appropriate physical activities which provide the necessary foundations in motor skill, movement acquisition, and behavioral development can enable children and youth to become successful participants in organized sport.

Numerous studies support the positive relationship that exists between psychological well-being and regular involvement in physical activity, especially in the areas of reduction of anxiety and depression. Conditions to maximize such outcomes are usually associated with individual preferences related to activity type; environmental factors; level of competition or intensity of activity; and individual versus group format.

Sport has also been shown to serve as a mechanism for the transmission of values, knowledge, and norms in creating social harmony. The specific values conveyed may be those of the dominant society, or they could be those of a subgroup. Therefore, sport could contribute to either differentiation and stratification or to integration into the overall society. Evidence indicates that different sports appeal to different social stratifications in the society and may reinforce cultural or societal differences. Sport also may serve to transmit general societal values, which leads many sport authorities to believe that sport has positive value for the participants in building character, discipline, a strong work ethic, and the ability to work in teams. The research literature supports the importance of de-emphasizing winning and competition and thereby moving young people into positive and enjoyable experiences. Unfortunately, the trend has been toward a more competitive, "win-oriented" framework, which has created increased aggression and violent behaviors among spectators and youth participants. This has led to many national forums at the high school, collegiate, and community levels to reassess the sport culture.

Positive outcomes related to socialization and social integration are also dependent upon appropriate leadership, as well as the creation of a climate for this to occur within the sport experience. Changes within sport and change in the general society have a symbiotic relationship–general societal changes affect sport, and changes in sport can also affect society.


Youth sports participation can have many benefits for the individual and for society. However, it is evident that sports can produce negative consequences if quality programs are not developed. Schools and communities can strive for the highest standards by educating and training coaches, deterring the professionalization of youth sports programs, and abiding by the guidelines established by national sport governing bodies, so that sports programs have optimal benefit for all youth, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or ability.



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