School Athletics Under the Ax

By Naomi Dillon

Jim Richardson isn’t your average coach. He’s always in search of average players.

“One of my big fortes is finding a kid who’s never wrestled and making him into a champion,” says Richardson, who has coached at Minnesota’s Grand Meadow Public Schools for the past 15 years. “I take a kid who has no support, no direction, displaced aggression and I say, ‘Let’s pound this into the mat,’ and I pound some rules in while we’re at it.”

Some of Richardson’s recruits have been title holders, but that’s not his real measure of success. “Staying out of trouble, paying taxes, raising a family,” he says. “That’s the true goal of a coach -- to make productive citizens of them.”

But, with the nation’s economy in distress, it’s getting harder for Richardson and others to oversee those kinds of transformations, even as interscholastic sports programs report record growth. Like other extracurricular activities, athletics are being put on the chopping block as cash-strapped school districts work to keep teachers in the classroom.

“It’s an easy target,” says Bruce Howard, a spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations. “But when schools do that, they haven’t really done their homework because they disadvantage a lot of children.”

Most sports activities are planned and scheduled a year in advance, so much of the economic crisis hasn’t been fully felt in districts, Howard says. But in particularly hard-hit areas such as California and Michigan, schools are paring down travel and games played, nixing tournaments, and even cutting players or programs.

Eliminating sports doesn’t just take away a healthy, supervised activity for kids. It also robs them of lessons -- how to work as a team, manage time, set goals, and persevere -- that aren’t easily learned in classrooms. It deprives the entire community as well.

“Sports are the great integrator,” says Jody Brylinsky, professor of sports studies at Western Michigan University. “They allow people to bring out the best in each other. They create a sense of identity. For many parents, it’s the first time they feel like they are part of a community.”

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