Athletics & Academics
This article provides an overview of the relationship between student athlete participation in school sport and academic achievement. The problems associated with sport that have been identified as having a detrimental effect on academics are discussed along with the social and psychological opportunities that sport participation provides. The findings from empirical research in the area of sport participation and academic achievement are provided, followed by a brief discussion of the weaknesses and challenges of this area of research. Sport-related social networking, school identification and commitment, relationships with significant adults, and developmental benefits are discussed in relation to how they positively impact academic outcomes. Five theoretical models are reviewed that may be used as theoretical perspectives to guide research in this area and to inform the practitioner when applying research findings to policy development.
Keywords Academic Achievement; Academic Standards; Adolescent Development; Athletics; Developmental Model; Educational Policy; Extracurricular School Activities; High School; Identification/Commitment Model; School Sports; Social Inequity Gap Reduction Model; Threshold Model; Zero-sum Model
Debate surrounding the coexistence of athletics and academics in the public schools has centered on the impact of athletic participation and students' academic performance and achievement. While there are a variety of extracurricular school activities sponsored by public schools (e.g., drama club, science club, intramural sports), the number of students that participate in athletics makes it a special case. In 2002, 43 percent of high school seniors were participating in school sports and during the 2005-2006 academic year over 7 million American high school students were involved in these athletic opportunities (Feldman & Matjasko, 2005; NFHS, 2006). These high rates of participation are coupled with growing concern about problems that have begun to fester in school sport that either directly or indirectly impact the level of academic achievement of the student athletes.
Issues with School Sports
One issue related to school sports that have raised concern with parents, administrators, teachers, and other school stakeholders includes the financial commitment that is made by schools when sponsoring athletic programs that are, in general, increasing in size (Goldman, 1991). The cost of sponsoring a comprehensive athletic program is extensive and requires funding from district monies received from taxpayer dollars and may compromise the amount of money that is allotted to maintaining and enhancing the academic program. There is also a large concern about the loss of instructional time for athletes as many sport teams receive early releases from the school day to travel to away games (Goldman, 1991). This travel may be more extensive when travel includes interstate competition (Goldman, 1991), which has become more prolific as athletic programs interested in attaining and maintaining national rankings (e.g., football, basketball) travel to other states to play other highly competitive teams.
Another concern is the commercialization, promotion, and corporate sponsorship of school sports (Goldman, 1991). Sport in the United States has become highly commercialized and this commercialization is not limited to professional sport. High school athletic administrators and coaches have begun to commercialize high school sport. For example, some athletic programs sell television and radio rights to game broadcasts. This commercialization sends the message to students that athletics are highly valued and important to the school, but may devalue academics. The growing trend of unsportsmanlike conduct by players, coaches and fans has also raised concern about the role of athletics in schools (Goldman, 1991). The growing number of incidents on the playing field has been accompanied by the unsportsmanlike conduct that has found its way to the stands as parents, community members and student fans often display a lack of respect for the coaches, players, and officials on the field.
Student Recruitment by Private Schools
Another point of concern in school sport is the growing number of incidents of the recruitment of high school athletes from one high school to another (Goldman, 1991). Private schools can recruit public school students to participate on their sports teams and provide scholarships to students if the student does not have the means to pay the cost of tuition, but recruitment is also found in the public school system as student athletes may be recruited by coaches from other high schools to play for their teams. This type of recruitment is typically barred or restricted by state athletic associations yet it does continue as coaches seek out the best players from “across town” to play for them, which places the focus on athletics and not academics. There is also concern about the appropriateness and effectiveness of the 'no pass-no play' policies for athletes (Goldman, 1991). The policy is well intentioned, as the message sent to the students is "if you do not pass your classes you are not allowed the privilege of playing your sport," yet if coaches and administrators do not enforce this policy or make frequent exceptions (e.g., the student is failing English, but grades are not posted until Monday so he/she is allowed to play Friday night) the policy becomes negligible.
Advantages of School Sports Participation for Adolescents
It is important to also point out the social and psychological opportunities that participation in sport provides to adolescents as they develop and which may contribute directly or indirectly to the students' investment or commitment to their academic achievement.
Improving Social Skills
Student athletes have unique opportunities to develop their social skills and their social identities. Athletics provide adolescents with a social network and support system that is attached to their school (Feldman & Matjasko, 2005). Students also have the opportunity to have general interaction with adults and develop positive relationships outside of their immediate families that may provide mentorship and help to develop mutual trust and commitment in relationships (Feldman & Matjasko, 2005). Athletic participation helps students to learn to have an internal locus of control and develop their global self-esteem (Marsh & Kleitman, 2005) while providing a setting that is challenging to students outside of the academic arena (Feldman & Matjasko, 2005). For some struggling students, their participation in extracurricular school activities is their only opportunity to achieve a level of success that is connected to the school context (Feldman & Matjasko, 2005). These opportunities that athletic participation provides help students develop a connectedness to the school, develop quality relationships with adults, and enhance social skills, each of which can contribute to students' academic success.
Improved Academic Achievement
The debate about athletics and their influence in academics / academic achievement has undergone empirical research and been the subject of scholarly discourse. Research findings have lent support for the positive relationship between sport participation and academic achievement. More specifically, research findings have suggested that participation in athletics is related to the following positive academic-related outcomes (Eccles, Barber, Stone, & Hunt, 2003; Marsh & Kleitman, 2005; Miller, Melnick, Barnes, Farrell, & Sabo, 2005):
• Higher grade point averages
• Fewer disciplinary referrals
• Lower absentee rates
• Decrease in dropout rates
• Stronger commitment to the school
• Like school better
• Being in the academic tract in coursework
• Taking more demanding coursework
• More likely to attend college and graduate
• Higher aspirations for attending college
• Applied to more universities and colleges
• Had better occupational status 15-years after high school
Each of these research findings links athletic participation with increased or improved academic performance and achievement for student athletes; however there are weaknesses in this area of research that must be acknowledged when considering the findings and the implications.
Weaknesses or Considerations
These weaknesses or considerations include:
• Student athletes are disproportionately of a higher socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is linked with academic achievement; therefore research conducted with student athletes needs to take...
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