Good work on your recent report (“Why are fewer Maine students playing high school sports?” Feb. 19). What you missed, however, was the larger dimension of elitist policies eliminating entire strata of high school students before the first game is played.

The Cape Elizabeth High girls’ basketball team lines up for the national anthem prior to its final game Feb. 7 at Lake Region High in Naples. The Capers finished the season with just nine healthy players and were unable to field a junior varsity team this winter. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A greater reason for non-participation in school sports is household income.

My school had an athletic director who every year announced that students who participate in sports do better in academic courses. The Feb. 19 report supported the same point of view. It is, in fact, true. What is not true is that one causes the other.

Households with greater income create an environment where kids tend to do better at both high school sports and academics. Wealthier families can afford to send their kids to sports clinics, to buy the gear necessary to play, make daily transportation to and from practice, pay for summer sports programs, etc. This relationship is nothing new or controversial. In fact, it is taught and written about in most educational statistics courses, a required class for every Maine teacher. Yet every year, the athletic director, or some other athletics booster, would make the same statement.

In reality, no one in the educational community actually believes sports participation causes better academic performance. They like to say as much because it provides a rationale for increasing athletics’ share of the school’s budget and affirms its value. Maine schools, for example, limit or prohibit student participation in sports if they receive a failing grade. Yet, if we actually believed participation in sports caused better performance in academics, why wouldn’t we encourage, if not require, students to participate in a sport when they receive a failing grade?

A second reason for lower participation is the way schools organize teams.


Usually there is a varsity, junior varsity and freshman division in the more popular sports. One would think they are sequentially ordered so participation at one level leads to the next, but this is not so. Some freshman players go to varsity teams immediately, some play on all three, some spend their high school years in the JVs and some spend their four years sitting on a bench.

Everyone in the system will sacrifice for a winning team, and part of that sacrifice is less able athletes’ playing time. The usual argument is kids need to learn the skills and requirements of competition. One would think we would keep the competition between teams and not teammates, but is not the case. I once suggested that if fostering competition were really a goal of public education, we should put it into our school mission statement. Interestingly enough, the faculty of the school I worked at were aghast at the idea. They would not apply the same standards to a classroom they passively accepted on the playing field.

Although there are some students who will buy into the idea that sitting on the bench during games and acting as practice fodder for the quality players is a worthwhile activity, most do not. Who can really blame them?

We could insist every player gets a reasonable, if not equal, amount of playing time. Certainly, in this day and age, recordkeeping would be one of the simpler tasks. Team success would depend upon the coaching and not a half-dozen superior players. Most importantly, every student would know that, if they participate, they would get the opportunity to be the player standing in the arena.

I used to annually propose an equal playing time requirement at department chair meetings.

The first time I did this, the athletic director, who had never heard such an outrageous proposal, looked at the chairpersons in shock and asked: “Do any of you realize how much new equipment, staff and facility we would have to buy if we really did this?”

Think about that response and you will see the real dimensions of high school sport.

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