It wasn’t about gay marriage or bullying or Greek austerity or anything else prominent in the news the past few days.
It was about whether it’s time to stop funding high school athletics.
Arizona is not the only state facing enormous K-12 funding pressure. During the economic downturn the past few years nearly every state either reduced education funding or held funding flat.
School districts across the country have needed to find ways to do more with less and in an increasing number of school districts one of the ways they’ve found is the elimination of high school athletics.
Perhaps it’s time for Arizona, or at least Tucson’s metro school districts, to have the same discussion.
It’s not a topic alien to most high school teachers or district governing boards. Teachers talk about it in hushed whispers in school lounges almost as if they’re Harry Potter and Hermione Granger trying not to say the name of You Know Who.
School board members will quietly talk about it with each other from time to time, though never on the dais as an item on a board agenda.
That’s because this is such a passionate issue that just broaching it in an official way will bring out the proverbial torch and pitchfork hordes who will turn board meetings into such melees that they will make the recent TUSD MAS board meeting brouhahas look like old ladies’ tea parties.
It’s hard to factor the true cost of high school athletics by peering into the byzantine depths of school district budgets. There are some line items labeled “athletics,” mostly accounting for the salaries of athletics administrators and coaching stipends. Coaching stipends and administrators alone cost TUSD $2 million a year.
But buried deep in the budget are myriad costs associated with athletics that get rolled into catchall facility, transportation and supply budgets. When you account for all the miles of athletic tape, the electricity for lights, fertilizer and lawn mowers for grass, wear and tear on buses and dozens of other costs it adds up to millions.
Athletics do generate some revenue through player fees and ticket sales but that income doesn’t even come close to covering their true cost.
Moreover, these days it’s not good enough to just have a team, you must have the best team, and since district funding just covers the basics, most coaches who want to be “the best” turn their players into beggars. They send them out to wash cars or sell cookie dough or the like to raise money to buy new high-tech gadgets and other gear to give their athletes that extra winning edge. Many schools also have large booster clubs that sell shirts and soda and nachos to raise money for the latest Nike uniforms or to fund out-of-state trips for elite teams.
High school athletics is also a billion dollar industry. Not only do schools buy all this equipment from private vendors but other companies make fortunes off of student athletes through the sale of medals, trophies, letter jackets, team photos and so on.
So a school district not only has to contend with parent and student outrage if they broach the subject of athletics elimination, but lobbying from private industry who want to make the sure the athletics gravy train stays on the tracks.
To be sure, there are some benefits to student athletics. It helps build confidence and self esteem and student athletes tend to stay in school and get passing grades because of pass-to-play rules. But other benefits, such as engendering school spirit, have faded in the modern age.
Back in the day, the entire city would turn out for a Tucson High football game. Now the stands are barely half full on Friday nights. The days of raucous pep rallies, school fight songs and huge homecoming parades are over.
Most of the interest in athletics these days has more do with college scholarships than school spirit. Yet even college recruiting has become detached from high schools, save for football. Every sport now has an “off season” club season in which elite players play other elite players. Because the competition in these club programs is so good, top players are more likely to attract college scouts to their club games than their high school games.
We Americans are sports mad and high school athletics is a more than century-old tradition and traditions are hard to break.
It’s doubtful any school board in the region will have the courage to broach this issue if presented simply as elimination.
But what might happen if districts presented the issue as a choice? Rather than a one-sided discussion – to eliminate or not eliminate – what if districts asked voters every school board election what they wanted to fund for the next two years? Give them a choice, $10 million for athletics or $10 million for math and science teachers.
If voters choose athletics, than we’ll know for certain we value it as an important part of high school education.
If voters choose education, though, it won’t be the end of athletics. Club teams and city and county recreation programs are already there to fill the void.
Austerity is here to stay so school districts must squeeze every dollar they get to properly educate our children. Does it make sense to continue to spend millions on grass, lights, buses and coaches so kids can play with a ball after school?
Perhaps high school athletics is a tradition whose cost we can no longer afford.