Whether a superintendent, principal or school board member, to say that you operate in a challenging educational environment is an understatement. In an increasingly complex world, expectations for providing students an education worthy of the 21st Century are rising. As is public skepticism regarding the effectiveness of schools in delivering that education. As if those challenges are not enough, the resources available to achieve that goal are declining.
In such an environment, education leaders will increasingly be challenged to examine how to invest resources in the most effective and efficient way. While many policy and funding priorities are driven by federal and state mandates, there is an area where local officials have ample authority to establish program and funding priorities: extracurricular activities.
Some maintain that decisions around sports and the arts are not nearly as important as those relating to core subjects or standardized testing issues. However, the priorities demonstrated through extracurricular spending have an outsized community influence. While a relatively small percentage of the overall school budget, they are highly visible activities that the community experiences directly through games and events. The fact is, what education leaders choose to emphasize and invest in speaks volumes as what they choose to identify as “important” greatly influences school and community values and culture. It is a complex relationship with no easy answers, particularly as it relates to the elephant in the room: tackle football.
Challenging the role of tackle football in our schools is the “third rail” of education reform. Regardless, we expect our education leaders to take on the tough challenges. That is what leadership is about. The days are over where boards continue to establish educational policy and funding priorities simply because we have always done it a certain way. The stakes are too high and the world is changing too rapidly.
My purpose is not to attack or destroy tackle football, but rather to encourage education leaders to consider its role in our schools in our rapidly changing world. It is a world that is galaxies removed from industrial America of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when football was formally incorporated into the fabric of our educational institutions. We live in an information-based, interconnected global economy and world community, where many of the jobs our students will have in the future do not even exist yet. It is a world economy where the most important currency of the future will be creativity.
But not only is the world around us changing rapidly, the world of tackle football is facing seismic shifts, much of it driven by its’ impact on brain health. Evidence of tackle football’s link to brain trauma continues to grow. This mounting evidence begs the question. What is the fundamental role of our educational institutions: to build and strengthen brains or to scramble them?
There is also the culture of tackle football. Many schools invest a tremendous amount of time, effort, energy, emotion and resources in tackle football. As a result, its influence on the academic values and educational culture of the school is enormous. But it is a violent, often sexist, win-at-all-cost culture with strong undercurrents of anti-intellectualism. The question is whether the culture of football is compatible with the academic culture and values of an educational institution.
As mentioned, board members and education and community leaders are operating in an exceedingly challenging environment. As a result, it is critical that they engage in open, honest, data driven analysis of whether tackle football is an activity that continues to deserve the enormous amount of time, effort, energy, emotion and resources that have traditionally been heaped upon it. In short, the question is whether tackle football remains a wise and effective educational investment.
To that end, following are six fundamental questions that boards should discuss, research and act upon as it relates to this challenge.
1 . Tackle football was incorporated into the educational system in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a tool to provide students the skills to succeed in the industrial economy of that time. Should the fact that our industrial economy has given way to a creative, information based, world economy and community that requires a different set of workplace skills, be considered in funding decisions related to football?
2 . Have the potential human costs to students’ health associated with football participation become too great for an educational institution to assume?
3 . One of the most fundamental responsibilities of our school system is not only to instill in young people a love of lifelong learning, but also the tools to allow them to continue to learn over their lifetimes. An overwhelming majority of football players will never play the game after high school. Are there better extracurricular activities, for example music, which can be practiced for a lifetime, in which to invest to achieve this purpose?
4 . From a public health perspective, should interscholastic sports programs serve a relatively small portion of the student body largely for public entertainment (Current US Model)? Or, should school sports and wellness programs be structured to provide broad based activities that can be practiced by all students for a lifetime (European Model)?
5 . How do you know what your primary institutional constituents’ opinions are regarding the fit of tackle football in your school and community? Or, do you simply assume you know how supportive (or not) your community is of football and its costs? Perhaps some surveying of the community could provide valuable input?
6. Why not Flag Football? See: https://www.johngerdy.com/blog-overview/why-not-flag-football
At the end of the day, the primary responsibility of board members and education leaders is to evaluate and prioritize school and academic priorities and programming. While the emotions around this issue will be strong and the dialogue generated by the discussion of these questions will be heated, that fact is, the world is changing too rapidly to continue to sponsor activities that no longer yield an adequate return on educational dollars invested in them.