While research has shown that participating in high school sports has a positive correlation with academic performance, these studies have missed key details regarding high school sports programs, thus skewing the results and portraying sports as far more beneficial for academic and personal success than the evidence actually dictates. Furthermore, these problems are exacerbated when carried into college, and a review of the literature regarding both high school and college sports programs reveals that sports are less effective at encouraging education and carry far more negative side-effects than other comparable, non-athletic extracurricular activities.
When addressing the possible academic contribution of high school and college sports, it is important to investigate not only whether or not sports contribute to education, but whether or not they contribute to education more or less than other comparable extracurricular activities, and furthermore, whether or not sports carry with them attendant negative side-effects not seen with other extracurricular activities.
With this in mind, the investigation of sports and their effects on education undertaken in this study revealed that while high school sports do correlate with educational benefits for those students who participate in them, these benefits are not necessarily any greater than those provided by other extracurricular activities, and furthermore, that high school sports carry the additional risk of injury and an increased proclivity for violence (especially for football players and wrestlers) that is non-existent in other extracurricular activities. For college sports, research reveals that while student athletes entering college will likely have worse academic profiles than their peers, over time these differences begin to disappear, although the pervasive problems with commercialization as well as ethnic and gender discrimination inflict side-effects not necessarily reflected in academic scores. Thus, while one may comfortably state that on the whole sports do contribute to education, when weighed against the potential for harm this contribution may ultimately be minimal, at least when compared to other extracurricular activities.
In any attempt to determine whether or not sports contribute to the education of high school and college students, one must be wary of asking the proper questions and proceeding in a careful manner in order to ensure the accuracy of one's conclusions, especially because the issue can occasionally become heated. Thus, before proceeding into a review of the extant literature regarding the subject, it is worthwhile to briefly consider some of the most frequently cited arguments for and against school sports, as well as those arguments in favor of extracurricular activities in general. The most commonly cited for the latter is the suggestion that extracurricular activities enable "youths to socialize with peers and adults, set and achieve goals, compete fairly, recover from defeat, and resolve disputes peaceably," as well as offering youths the opportunity "to form new connections with peers and acquire social capital [and] in addition, extracurricular activities are one of the few contexts in which adolescents regularly come in contact with unrelated adults outside of the classroom" (Darling, Caldwell, & Smith, 2005, p. 52). These benefits hold true across the board for extracurricular activities, except where certain activities actually encourage division and escalation of conflict (a topic that will be addressed later on).
For those advocating school sports as best or ideal amongst extracurricular activities, the most frequently stated benefits are the practical lessons in teamwork provided and the maintenance of physical health, coupled with research suggesting sports correlate with an increase in average grade as well as reducing the likelihood of students' using drugs or alcohol (research that must be viewed with a grain of salt and placed in a much larger context, as will be discussed later). For those against, school sports represent a misallocation of resources towards extracurricular activities which only provide some of the benefits of such activities while carrying with them unacceptable risks, such as physical injury and a subservience to peer pressure and the need to conform as a result of the team's well-being being placed above the individual's. Both positions may be validated by academic research, and as such, both sets of arguments are more or less "right," with the only question being to what extent the conclusions of these arguments bear themselves out.
With this in mind, one may begin with a review of the literature concerning the effects of high school sports on academic success before continuing on to an analysis of the literature addressing college sports, with a particular eye towards how the two sets of data compliment each other and reveal certain facts not available when considering only one age group (as longitudinal studies following student athletes and non-athletes from high school through college are nearly non-existent, even though these would be the ideal resource when attempting to determine the long-term efficacy of school sports in supporting education).
Almost across the board, research has found that high school students who participate in interscholastic sports perform better academically, on average, than their peers. A 1994 longitudinal study examining 10th graders in comparison to their "student background and 8th grade measures of the dependent variables" found "positive effects of sport participation on grades" alongside other developmental benefits such as improved "self-concept, locus of control and educational aspirations" alongside "a negative effect on discipline problems" (Fejgin, 1994, p. 211). Although there are certain extenuating factors which serve to complicate these results, this essay will proceed through the rest of the literature regarding the effects of high school sports on academic success before pointing out these criticisms (especially because the majority of the literature comes to the same conclusions as Fejgin's article, and suffers from many of same biases, or at least, omissions).
In their research article "Extracurricular school activities: The good, the bad, and the nonlinear," Marsh and Kleitman (2002) studied twelve-grade students in order to determine the effects of extracurricular schools activities (ESAs) on academic performance. The researchers found, like the Fejgin study, that participation in sports had positive effects on "school grades, coursework selection, homework, educational and occupational aspirations, self-esteem, freedom from substance abuse, number of university applications, [and] subsequent college enrollment" (p. 464). This coincides with a more recent article written by Darling, Caldwell, and Smith (2005) which found that "adolescents who participated in ECAs reported higher grades, more positive attitudes toward schools, and higher academic aspirations once demographic characteristics and prior adjustment were controlled" (p. 51). However, both the Marsh and Kleitman research and the Darling et. al. article had importance differences both from the Fejgin's conclusions and each other, and examining these differences and nuances helps to reveal some of the problems which arise when attempting to study the effects of sports in this way.
Firstly, where the Fejgin article studied only the effects of sports on academics and other factors, the latter two articles examined sports alongside a large number of other possible extracurricular activities, finding unequivocally that sports do not provide the same robust improvement in academic and personal development as other, non-athletic activities (although in both cases, this fact is somewhat buried in the results and the authors do not other to spend much time considering its implications for interscholastic sports. Marsh and Kleitman found that out of the eight different categories of extracurricular activities studied, only academic clubs and school publications "had a substantial number of effects that were exclusively positive, indicating that higher levels of participation in these types of activities are associated with higher outcomes" (p. 499).
Similarly, Darling et. al. found that "those who participated in non-sport ECAs reported consistently better adjustment than those who did not participate in ECAs and those who participate in sports," and furthermore, that "alcohol and marijuana use were not independently associated with ECA [extracurricular activity] participation," directly contradicting Marsh and Kleitman's findings that extracurricular activities helped preclude substance abuse (p. 51). In fact, Darling et. al. found that alcohol intake actually increased with extracurricular activity, something that will be important to remember later when considering college sports activity (p. 71-72).
Taken together, these initial results indicate that while high school level interscholastic sports provide some benefits to academic performance and personal development, other, nonathletic activities are actually better at providing these same improvements. At first glance this does not appear to be a particularly damning assessment of school sports, but one must take into account certain factors which were not accounted for in the literature but would have substantial effects on the analysis of sports' contributions to academic and personal performance.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly as the focus of this study is largely education and academic importance, the majority of high school interscholastic sports teams have academic requirements for their players, such that any given player must maintain a certain grade point average in order to remain on the team, a stipulation not present in most other non-athletic extracurricular activities. While one might be inclined to suggest that this reflects' well on sports programs' commitment to academic excellence, in reality this results in skewed effects on academic performance, because analyses of most other extracurricular activities are pulling from a much…