“Exercise is essential to the health of the whole body; it increases the circulation and the power of breathing, and stimulates every part of the body to a good healthy growth.” — Winfred E. Baldwin, 1896
Winfred Baldwin, who wrote, “The Werner Educational Series: Primary Lessons in Human Physiology and Hygiene for Schools,” may not have realized exactly how stimulated people would get over organized and competitive school exercise.
Were he to see our day, he might get dyspeptic.
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Americans have long considered physical activity a necessary part of a complete education. But from the moment the first ball rolled out of the first P.E. closet and onto a field, administrators have struggled to keep games from being more important than books.
If you’re keeping score, the academics are always playing catch-up.
While much of the rest of the world decided at the dawn of the Industrial Age to confine sports mainly to club teams, games in the United States — football and basketball, especially —became synonymous with school spirit and pride. That was, in retrospect, a missed tackle. Soon, sports got entangled with big business and dreams of multi-million dollar contracts with professional teams.
Which brings me to the Utah State School Board. It is considering a new policy that would force the Utah High School Activities Association to let student athletes transfer from one school to another without penalty. Right now, students who do so lose athletic eligibility for a while unless they can obtain a waiver.
The new policy comes with a large stick. If the policy is enacted and the activities association doesn’t change its rules, public schools wouldn’t be allowed to join the association, which until now has served as the sanctioning body for public and private high school extracurricular activities.
On one level, this may be a power struggle between the association and the school board (whose chairman also is on the board of a charter school that has clashed with the association over transfer rules). But on a larger level, it is yet another battle in the endless tug-of-war between athletics and academics in public schools.
That balance isn’t easy.
Utah has an open enrollment law. Parents may place their children in the school of their choice or transfer them freely for academic reasons. Which is, of course, inconsistent. An academic transfer could help a math student, for instance, receive a scholarship, just as an athlete could be helped by playing for a better team.
But we all know how this plays out in reality. Math students aren’t likely to be lured from one school to another just to win an academic decathlon.
In a sport-obsessed society, consistent policies can make a mockery of academics.
Christians teach that people set their hearts on the things they treasure. Touchdowns and slam-dunks have become such precious booty in the United States that people’s hearts will work every angle to get them.
Utah is hardly dealing with this in a vacuum. A recent story in USA Today High School Sports said about half the athletic associations in the nation force students to sit out a year if they transfer for other than family reasons.
In Texas, a coach can ruin a transferring student by placing a checkmark next to any of a series of questions asking whether the student was recruited, didn’t like the coach or simply left for athletic reasons.
The Dallas Morning News recently told the story of a young softball player whose family moved because she said she was consistently bullied and threatened by another girl at school. Her coach claimed otherwise and kept her from playing for her new school.
When passions run high, claims of unfair decisions tend to abound. The perfect policy remains as elusive as a five-tool player.
The backdrop to this discussion, however, should be these statistics from the NCAA: Only 5.8 percent of high school football players will play in college, and only 0.09 percent will play professionally.
Given those odds, educators need to somehow lasso school spirit in the name of Baldwin’s formula for exercise as a part of “good healthy growth.” Good luck with that.