Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 7: The Ethics of Avoiding the Extremes of Sports

Teacher: Since we've already dealt with the Greek notion of the Golden Mean as applied to Success and the Family, I'm going to dispense once again with preliminaries and cut right to the chase by discussing one final topic. Anyone care to begin?

Student 1: I'd like to talk about "Sports."

Teacher: Before you do, "Sports" is a broad topic, and it's easy to get off track. Since we're discussing these topics in terms of moderation and its two opposite extremes, we won't be discussing the pros and cons of sports, which is another discussion altogether. So I'd ask you all to keep this in mind as you speak.

Student 1: I think sports in its extreme form would be when you get so carried away with them that you lose all sense of proportion, and they begin to take over your life. You become a monomaniac to the point that that's all you think and talk about and don't have time for anything else. You're always listening to and watching games or sports-talk programs, and before you know it you're married to a football widow. Don't get me wrong, I like sports and enjoy playing them, but only as a way to relax but then come back to reality. I would call this "sports in moderation." They're just one of several things you do, but when they're your only interest, something's radically wrong.

At the other end of the spectrum is someone who has no interest in sports whatsoever, but, to be honest, I don't think that with sports it's accurate to call this an extreme. It's not as though it's a fault or anything. These people just aren't interested in sports, like some people aren't interested in playing cards, bowling, Shakespeare, or opera, because these activities just leave them cold. It's a matter of taste, a subjective value judgment, which I wouldn't regard as an extreme or fault at all, but simply a lack of interest.

Teacher: Okay. A good opening that stakes out the ground in a general way. Anyone else?

Student 2: I'd like to transition to school sports if that's okay?

Teacher: Anyone have an objection? [Pause] No? Okay, you're on.

Student 2: I love sports and I wish I could try out for one of our school teams, but I can't because of the time commitment. A lot of kids tell me that they have to spend more time on practice than they'd like to, although they realize that there's no other way to get in shape and learn the plays. After-school practice gets you home so late that you're totally wiped out and just want to go to bed, but you can't because of class assignments. Plus, there's all the time actually spent on home and away-games, so I just limit myself to whatever exercise I can get in gym class. I just couldn't keep my grades up if I joined a school team.

Student 3: Well, I'm on the varsity and respect what you're saying, but this is where school sports teach you time management. I admit it's tough, but you can do it. Students who go out for sports know that it entails sacrifice, but are willing to make it.

Student 4: I'd like to second that. No one's denying that sports can cut into school work, but most of us use our free periods to do whatever class assignments we have. And, of course, the coaches are always on our backs about keeping our grades up. I'm not saying that everyone lives up to it all the time, but I think we do a pretty good job.

Student 5: I know you both do a great job with this balancing act because of your fantastic GPA's, but I think you're more the exception than the rule. I don't think that most students can do this, except the supermotivated and super-gifted. I'm not blaming anybody because there are only so many hours in a day, but most students find it very hard to time-manage and not cut corners with their classes, even with the coaches constantly breathing down their necks. My point is that students are so distracted and tired out by sports even to want to learn or care about academics, let alone do really well in them. Sports just take too much out of you.

Student 2: I want to make a follow-up point. I don't blame the coaches, because they and the school are under tremendous pressure to win. The community wants sports; most parents want them; students expect them; and the school feels that they do a lot of good for students and school spirit. I guess what I'm saying is that, despite these benefits, maybe the school is trying to do too many things.

I just wish it would cut school sports altogether and get back to what school should be about -- academics, instead of bringing all these sports distractions into the school that make it hard for students to concentrate and do as well as they could. Sports have a way of becoming too excessive and crowd out what's far more important - academics! They simply get in the way and overcomplicate what's already a challenge in getting a solid foundation for college. Just pick up teams during gym class to get exercise and let off steam.

Student 6: This is where the school does a good job for students who do want to succeed academically. They can take college-prep, honors, AP courses, and Independent Study. Some schools even offer college-credit courses in conjunction with local colleges.

Student 7: I hear that point a lot, but when you consider that many athletes have early dismissal for away-games, it's hard for them to make up what they miss during those college-prep and AP classes scheduled at the end of the day. Also, many students are booked up solid with classes the entire day with no free periods to do class assignments. You also hear grumbling that college-prep and AP classes are too big and that courses are cut because teachers were let go because of budget problems, but the sports program is never touched.

The gym's always filled to capacity for wrestling matches and basketball games, and the football, baseball, or soccer fields always have a good crowd for home games, but school musicals, plays, concerts, and other cultural events draw only small audiences in comparison. I'm not saying that's the administration's or board's fault, but this says a lot about the community's values.

Student 8: The school also has a responsibility for students who won't be going to college, and a lot of these students go out for sports. Also, parents want sports for their children, so the school has to keep parents happy, as well as students and the community.

Student 7: Well, I think the school caters more to sports than academics, which should be the school's central focus. You have community pressure to make sure we have a good sports program. The administration gets pressure form the board, which naturally wants to please the community. But there's never community pressure for improving academics, only to cut teachers and programs at budget times. Sports always come first, and there's resentment among students, especially juniors and seniors, when all this begins to dawn on them.

Student 9: I think that there's also student resentment about athletes being cut a lot of slack. School officials always look the other way when athletes get in trouble. I have friends in other schools and hear stories about how "Sports Rule" because nobody wants to be blamed for benching athletes and risking losing games.

Student 10: About the big turnouts for sports events and the small number for concerts and school plays, I don't think you can blame the administration or board for that because it's just a fact of life that in this country sports are the national religion, and we just have to live with it. I don't see what the district could do about it because it certainly advertises these cultural events enough, and you can't drag the public to them.

Student 11: The problem reaches down even to middle schools, which become feeder teams for the high-school teams, which are the farm teams for colleges, which are gladiatorial training camps for Big Time Sports.

Student 8: This is a reflection of the country, and there's not much you can do about it. Whenever anyone says that the school isn't academic enough, they forget that the school, like it or not, has to work within the kind of culture that America is, which, academically speaking, leaves a lot to be desired. It even shafts students in college with years of debt!

Student 7: I'm just saying that the administration and board can do more, has to do more to counter community apathy toward academics because, after all, it's our future that's at stake. Schools could do more to talk up academics and not make academic students feel like second-class citizens in their own school.

Student 12: I think the school's caught in the middle in all of this. Most parents want their children to have it all in high school, and "having it all" means that academics inevitably suffer. Students are kept so busy with community service, school activities, part-time jobs, and, most of all, sports that they're too tired and lack the time, focus, and energy to want to learn and improve their grades.

Student 7: Well, I do blame the school. There should be much more pushback. The school doesn't exist to serve the community, but the students it's preparing for their future! Schools need to educate their communities about what's more important - education or sports! You have kids who want to quit the team, but coaches pressure them to stay because "it will hurt the team." Students don't need guilt trips in addition to their mediocre grades.

Student 13: I think we're waiting for Godot if we expect schools in this country to change. If you want to improve the system, it's never going to happen. Life's short, and you have to worry about only one thing, and that's educating yourself. I think teachers, administrators, and board members are locked into their roles and have a hard enough time as it is just doing their jobs much less trying to change their school. Forget reforming the system and focus on yourself.

Drive teachers crazy with questions in class; go beyond what's expected of you; see teachers after school for extra work, for books they'd recommend, and suggestions to help you be better prepared for college. Don't identify with the school any more than you have to because you'll get too caught up in the social scene. Think college and educating yourself. The biggest obstacle to getting a real education is the school itself! Not that the school doesn't want to help you, but it can't because the state, mayors, and community won't grant it the funds to hire more teachers, have smaller classes, and broaden the curriculum, instead of cutting courses.

Student 7: If the administration and board don't stand up for students and academics, who will? They have to be more vocal in advocating for academics over everything else -- especially school board members! They should be more out in front about this. Otherwise, they're failing in their duty. As things stand now, they're only about the status quo and are hardly profiles in courage. There has to be a healthy tension between the community on one side, and administrators and board members on the other, rather than accepting community indifference. After all, students will be the ones who will suffer in the long run with a substandard education. [Long pause]

Teacher: Excellent discussion with strong feelings on both sides of the issue. I guess the question is: Should our schools be like Sparta or Athens? See you tomorrow.