Essay: High School Sports: Is the Character

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High School Sports: is the Character they Build Bad?

Imagine if you will, dear reader, that a strappingly built British fellow were to appear before your school board. He has a brilliant, if rather odd, proposal to make. He suggests that your school should institute a modern derivation of several ancient past times. These rituals, he explains, have been used in ancient cultures as a way to serve their pagan deities, establish political dominance, train their warriors, and provide sexual gratification for the male elders of the culture who enjoyed watching beautiful youth compete in the nude or with skimpy clothing. This handsome Brit suggests that these games will build character in your high school students by encouraging them to hone their competitive urges, form absolute obedience to their ritual master and compatriots, and increase their sexual desirability among their peers. He suggests that these games could be highly competitive, serving to create a natural pecking order of the elite within the school and motivating all students to compete for a handful of positions among the national or global fellowship of star participants. These rituals, he seeks to reassure the school board, may cost so much that music and art programs will have to be discontinued but that is a small price to pay for an increase in the mystic force he calls the "school Spirit."

How would you respond to this foreigner? Perhaps, like noted cult expert Jeff Lindsay, you would attempt to warn the public about this sinister gamble for our children's futures. As Lindsay warns his reader, "This cult takes up many hours of student time, imposes physically grueling demands, requires total obedience to shadowy authority figures who exert control over many aspects of the child's life, subjects them to extreme peer pressure to perform and achieve goals for the group, demands that the child obey strict rules of behavior and diet, and even forces the child to wear special ritualistic clothing - often including special underwear (at least for boys)!" (Lindsay, 1)

Perhaps your fearful response would change, however, when the school board was introduced to the modern names of these re-invented rituals. Ancient practices like the Mesopotamian ballgame, which were once replete with human sacrifice of the losers, have been sanitized by gym teachers and translated into something called "basketball."

Other ball games once outlawed by the pope for their pagan associations (ballgame.org) have been renamed as "football" and "baseball." And while the ancient Greek pedophilic game of wrestling is still called approximately the same thing, the boys will be allowed to wear clothes! Surely these aren't that frightening. Once you know that these old practices have modern names, surely you can accept that they are a necessary part of the modern school experience?

One must admit that this scenario is somewhat absurdist. Games are already a vital part of our school system and already receive funding above and beyond that available for the arts. And Jeff Lindsay, who really is an expert on the theory of cults, was just using the "cultic specialty... [of] competitive sports." (Lindsay, 1) as a spoof of the way in which a biased observer can interpret any religion as a dangerous cult. This scenario with the strapping Brit is a mere metaphor for a process that took place over a hundred years ago (Miracle and Rees describe the movement of school sports from Britain to American in the 19th century) and with very little protest. However, a modern observer might indeed due well to reconsider the prospect of competitive school sports from the ground up. This essay seeks to prove a simple, and yet very controversial point: competitive sports, as they currently exist in American schools, are unhealthy for students.

Before this point can be proven, it is worth taking a moment to define the terms of this argument: competitive should not be taken to refer to the rules of the game, but rather to the focus of the game. A game which is competitive, in that the players compete with one another and the game rules requires winners and losers is not necessarily unhealthy for children. Children naturally compete to some degree in their games. However, in modern schools games are not merely competitive by nature of their rules -- they are competitive by nature of their social ramifications and structure. Students not only compete while playing, but they also compete intensely for the mere privilege of playing, and continue to compete intensely not merely against their immediate opposition on the playing field but against all other teams in all other schools and even against their own teammates for recognition and possible promotion to the "Pros" or for college scholarships. Competition becomes not merely the fashion in which the game is played, but the reason for playing -- the "game" focuses not on amusement and physical activity but on competition and winning. "Winning in sport, like winning in life for Americans, is outcome-oriented, not process-oriented. The usual question asked after a fame is not how well you played or how enjoyable it was, but 'What was the score?'... losing is worse than death because you have to live with losing!" (Miracle & Rees, 14) So This essay in no way means to imply that fun games (whether those be hide and seek, checkers, or friendly match of basketball or baseball) should not conclude in one side or person winning while another side or person looses, but that a system which focuses on competition to the detriment of inclusion and recreation is inherently unhealthy for children. This essay will particularly focus on the modern American incarnation of competitive sports, which suffers from an extreme of this unhealthy systematic competition. From this point forward, then, when the essay refers to "sports" or "athletics," this reference should be understood as specifically referring to the modern, systematically competitive American incarnation of intermural competition and not to other physically-intensive recreational activities or even intramural games.

Before even dealing with the full social ramification of sports, which are themselves far-reaching, one would do well to look at the actual scientific data regarding the effect of sports on high school students. Research by Donald Demoulin, published in a peer reviewed journal of Instructional Psychology, showed that "students without [being] Sports involved showed greater Personal Maturity." (pp. 1) in no other organized activity did students become less mature or have a reduction in their grade point average except sports. Demoulin's research found that students involved in music or leadership activities (such as student government or debate teams) had higher average grades, while athletes did not. Moreover, students in music showed increased maturity while students in leadership showed increased assertiveness and confidence. The only benefit which athletes had was "greater social integration" (Demoulin, 1) which only means that they were more popular and had a tight group coherency with other athletes.

This research essentially proved what intelligent high school students have known for years: athletes are more popular but lack in maturity. Their popularity is not even beneficial for them. Further research performed by Eccles and Barber showed that students who participate in competitive sports are more likely to be actively involved in trouble-making. "Compared with the other students in extracurricular activities, athletes were more likely to use drugs and alcohol...." (Sleek, 1) it is relatively common knowledge that high school sports stars are known for being more sexually active as well. Drugs and alcohol, along with promiscuous sex, may be directly linked to the popularity culture which includes partying, and may also be related to the reduced inhibitions which stem from group-think.

The way in which sports create a sort of amoral mob mentality is clearly discussed in Miracle and Rees' book Lessons of the Locker Room. They write about a concept called game reasoning which is a situational morality according great moral superiority to victory and allowing for objectively immoral activities if they allow one to succeed in the game. Of course, many games and contact sports which have a degree of physical violence implicit in them, and might promote a certain callousness towards the pain of others and danger to children who are involved. However, the danger that Miracle and Rees address is far more serious. They explain that athletes often seriously consider intentionally harming others. They quote student athletes justifying foul-plays and intentional harm to opponents:

one athlete thought that [a player] should injure his opponent because these were the coach's instructions. 'If the coach tells to do something, you have to do it. You have to take orders or you'll get taken right out of the fame. You can't play it your way.'... this means that in certain sports some behavior that is defined as illegal by the rules is really seen by athletes as a normal part of the game. Fighting in hockey is an example of such behavior. Game reasoning... legitimates many acts that would normally be considered illegitimate. These 'legitimated' acts were inevitably advantageous to oneself or one's team...… [END OF PREVIEW]

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