I did not play sports in school. In fact, I hated them. I was the kid who always dropped the ball; I was the one picked last. So it is odd for me to do what I am about to do: advocate passionately for more inclusive school sports teams with opportunities for all to play.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

I admit the spark is personal. My kiddo got cut from the high school baseball team in this, his senior year. Now, I am the first to admit that my son is not the most talented player on the field. He gets his lack of coordination from me. That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a kid who loves the game more or understands it better.

He wasn’t angry; he didn’t think it was unfair. He said there were simply better players who tried out. He was, however, crushed. As are countless other kids being cut from teams in the same way. So, while the spark is personal, the issue is universal.

The coaches are not at fault here. They are following the rules. But, it got me thinking, to what end? What is the intended purpose of school-based sports?

To quote Mike Blackburn, the athletic director at Northwestern High School in Kokomo, Indiana: “The purpose of a high school athletic program is not to provide Division 1 college scholarships, develop athletes to produce a college national championship, to provide candidates for professional sports or to prepare gifted athletes for Olympic competition. …. High school sports should be a continuation of the classroom so that such lifetime values as citizenship, sportsmanship, teamwork and hard work are taught and reinforced.”

Jody Redman, Minnesota State High School League associate director, agrees: “I like to win, but it’s not our purpose. Our purpose is education. It’s human growth and development of the inner lives of kids. … When they graduate from high school, 97% of kids … will never play organized sports to the level or degree that they play now, in high school, again. So what are we giving them if we are only centered on physical skill development and goals?”

The National Federation of State High School Associations produced a report detailing data that show students who play sports have higher grades and higher achievement test scores. Sports enhanced: school engagement and a sense of belonging, the development of life skills and values not typically taught in classroom education, healthier behaviors leading to better physical and mental health, and co-curricular activities that lead to better citizens. There’s evidence that these benefits continue after graduation.

There is a host of research-driven data backing up the common-sense knowledge that high school sports should be a place for every kid to belong.

I understand that there is value to building a team with skills and expertise. I am not suggesting everyone who wants to play be put on the varsity team. I am suggesting we think about the larger purpose of an educational institution and create tiered experiences so that every kid who wants to play be given an opportunity to do so.

We’ve all just come through a difficult and trying year. If it has taught us nothing else, I would hope we have realized the importance of providing connection and belonging for every child.

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