Brookings fellow, Michael Hansen, has a piece blaming high school sports for “distract[ing] public schools from their mission.” It’s a curious piece because it never actually articulates what the mission of schools should be, nor does it provide evidence that sports undermine that mission. Instead, it references a study by Marguerite Roza showing that (at least in one district) the “per-participant cost of cheerleading totaled $1,348 and $829 for football. Less than $350 per student was spent on math instruction for the year.” He goes on to argue:
It is unclear how widespread this disproportionate spending is among U.S. high schools, but it raises the question of whether our spending in public education is consistent with our academic goals. And, from an equity perspective, the proposition of fielding a football team using scarce public resources implies the funds for a few student players comes at the expense of the many other students.
So, his evidence that sports are bad is that they cost more per pupil than math instruction and affect a smaller number of students. Normally, when economists perform a cost-benefit analysis they consider benefits as well as costs, but in this case Hansen only mentions the costs and fails to consider the benefits. Presumably he assumes the benefits to high school sports are small or zero, but rigorous evidence suggests the benefits can be substantial.
One analysis by Eric Eide and Nick Ronan uses an instrumental variable approach to estimate the effect of participating in high school sports on long-term outcomes, like educational attainment and earnings. They find:
…sports participation has a negative effect on the educational attainment of white male student athletes, a positive effect on the educational attainment and earnings of black male student athletes, and a positive effect on the educational attainment of white female student athletes. We find no effect of participation on the educational attainment or earnings of Hispanic males or black and Hispanic females.
From “an equity perspective,” as Hansen likes to frame the issue, sports seem like a real plus. Sports may give at-risk students a reason to stay in school so that they can actually receive math and other subject instruction. An amazing randomized experiment of a Chicago program called Becoming a Man — Sports Edition, demonstrates that participating in aggressive sports is particularly effective for disadvantaged youth in improving school engagement and reducing violent crime. Taking money from sports to increase resources for math instruction might do little good for students who have dropped out or gone to jail. In addition, we have all sorts of other expensive programs to help black boys, none of which seem to bother Hansen, and I doubt many have been shown to be as effective at improving outcomes as sports.
Sports may also convey leadership skills, which may account for the improved long-term outcomes among white girls who participate in sports. Again, much ink and and wealth has been devoted to building the self-esteem of girls, particularly in the sciences. High school sports seem like an effective way to accomplish that.
The per pupil cost figures on sports and math instruction are also misleading because almost all students are enrolled in math while fewer are on sports teams. Rather than posing a problem for equity, as Hansen suggests, this fact suggests that the total cost of sports is not that high. I’m sure we could bring the per pupil cost down if we mandated that all students play a sport, just as we mandate that all take math, but we would also raise the aggregate cost.
Of course, programs that serve only some students will be more expensive, but offering a variety of opportunities is precisely the mission of high schools. Every other elective activity in high school, including theater, band, newspaper, and art, also has higher costs per participating student than required courses, such as math and English. Does Hansen want to get rid of all of those programs as well? Does he think they also distract from the mission of schools?
Perhaps if Hansen had thought about what the mission of schools actually is, he might realize that it involves offering students a variety of experiences rather than the thin gruel of drilling math and reading all day. Thriving and successful adults aren’t produced by Hansen’s incredibly narrow conception of what it means to be educated.