Having played sports through high school, I lean toward the idea that sports offer valuable experience to young people (and older people).
Looking at this question institutionally, I would say that providing opportunities for students to develop physical ability and kinetic IQ is a respectable decision on the part of the school.
Sports counter the (potential) idea that life is found only in books and that there is only one path to success.
I think sports and physical education are more important now than ever, and I say this an an English teacher whose students are given a state test. It is no secret that obesity is an epidemic in America. If we don't promote physical activity, there is no way we will be able to combat that. I also think that giving students physical activity during the day helps them to be more mentally agile.
Furthermore, I think sports and P.E make students more well-rounded. Extra-curricular sports, especially, help to keep students accountable. They give students something connected to school to be passionate about when they otherwise wouldn't care one iota for school. They teach leadership skills, team work, and the meaning of pushing yourself to the limit, not to mention social skills and discipline. As a core teacher who believed in the value of education more than anything, I think sports and P.E absolutely have their place and should never be done away with.
I think there are many students who would choose an additional academic class over a gym class, and maybe they should, but I really think that athletics provides a great break in the day during a typical school day. Getting exercise is great for mental performance, so it continues to make sense that schools provide an opportunity to get the blood pumping.
If we're talking about high school sports, I don't think that they're overemphasized in general, although there are surely places where they are. I had so much fun playing high school sports and I have enjoyed coaching high school sports as well. I think that they provide people with a great way to have fun and to get fit. They also help teach life lessons and things like time management. So I tend to think they're worth it.
Once, in my state, there was a fierce debate about cutting funding for education. Proposals involved closing campuses, firing teachers, increasing class sizes, firing teachers' aides, firing janitors, cutting the arts, cutting academic programs, etc. No one proposed cutting funding for athletics even a little bit. No one proposed even a temporary pause in, say, sending athletes all over the place to stay in hotels, ride on buses, fly on planes, etc.
On an internet debate board, a friend suggested trimming sports programs just a bit to emphasize -- even if only temporarily -- intramural sports that benefit anyone who wants to be involved. There was tremendous outrage. To make her point facetiously, she used a different name to suggest that she was a student interested in starting an intercollegiate clogging program on her campus. She assumed that people would think the idea of intercollegiate clogging competitions absurd and ridiculous. Instead, she received many suggestions about how to get a program started, how to attract funding, etc. No one questioned the wisdom of intercollegiate clogging.
Physical activity is certainly a necessary ingredient for a healthy body, and the large number of obese American teens should show that sports has a place in schools. I think it is a valuable part of high school life, bringing the student body a way of showing school spirit and community pride. Though I agree that Americans take many sports--pro football and basketball in particular--too seriously, it is a great diversionary form of entertainment for many people. I don't know what I'd do without my fantasy baseball leagues during the spring and summer, and I am a big fan of college football. I also attend my local high school's football and softball games regularly.
I have to agree that all aspects of life need to be regarded with balance. I have problems with schools which look at their athletics as above their academics. The first thing a student should be concerned with is obtaining an education.
Like anything else, I think every opportunity (whether sports, academics, career, family, etc.) is best pursued in balance with everything else. Though I am built (and genetically predispositioned) to be very athletic, I have to admit that growing up, I was not particularly interested in sports. I participated because my parents encouraged me to, or because my friends did it, and I usually had fun, but playing sports has never been on my top ten list of favorite activities. I still feel the same way today. I don't even really like watching sports.
That said, I do think sports provide the opportunity for learning many life lessons in one of, if not THE healthiest way possible. Team sports teach leadership, dedication, teamwork, responsibility, trust, communication... the list is almost endless. Even individual sports, such as golf, teach lessons like perseverence, dedication, how to learn from mistakes, etc.
Like anything else, it can be dangerous when sports are made to be the most important thing in a person's life. However, I do believe that they are inherently positive, healthy, and important when included in a life that is balanced.