Winning at All Costs: Has Athletics Become a Priority Over Academics?

District 205 School Board will ask the community, "How do you define success?"

When it comes to athletics, nobody likes to lose.

If the York High School Football Team loses a game, for example, players feel bad after putting in all those hours of practice and coming up short. Coaches sometimes might worry about losing their jobs if the team record isn't up to par. And many parents are highly invested in—and emotionally connected to—the win/loss columns. At the Elmhurst District 205 Policy Committee meeting Aug. 23, Superintendent David Pruneau said at his previous district he even had a coach quit because he was receiving death threats from parents.

Data shows that participating in extracurricular sports develops better students overall. But how does a school district balance winning at all costs with its primary mission of educating students?

The District 205 School Board is making it a priority to define that balance by drafting a philosophical policy statement on athletics. The discussion began last week in the Policy Committee meeting, but it will reach far into the community, to athletes, parents and coaches, before it is complete.

"I think we need to hear from our community. What does our community want out of extracurricular activities in our schools?" committee member and School Board President Jim Collins said.

The School Board, along with the administration of District 205, wants to take a macro look at athletics to determine several things: How do athletics fit into the mission of the district? How should the district define "success"? How should an athletics philosophy be written into School District policy?

It's been a long time coming, Superintendent David Pruneau told the committee. The matter came up last spring during meetings with coaches, athletes and parents to come up with a policy on athletics. The stumbling block was that no one had a clear idea of what the district's philosophy is.

Written into the existing Code of Conduct is a philosophy statement that talks about demanding excellence from students and staff; instilling self-discipline, respect and a positive work ethic; promoting healthy living and good sportsmanship; and developing skills to be competitive. While all important, the statement misses the mark, Pruneau said.

"You're spending significant dollars out of the general fund to support athletics and extracurriculars. Why are you doing that? How does that feed into the academic mission of the School District?" Pruneau asked the Policy Committee. "I think it does, but it (is important) to flesh that out in policy."

Without a policy, as the board tackles new budget cuts, it will face tough questions that can't be answered definitively.

"You know what will happen," he said. "We'll be back at the table, and (someone will ask) 'Why are you funding athletics over academics?' " Pruneau said. "Academics is your primary mission, and nothing in board policy talks about athletics and extracurriculars."

It's going to be a controversial discussion, he said, because the value of athletics is often judged by winning and losing, especially at the varsity level. He cited York's football team as an example.

"That team will be defined by wins and losses by this community. For good or bad," he said. "I've been in education long enough to say, if a coach is not winning, in most communities they're asked to leave within a very short time and they'll bring another coach in that will win games. It's not about the development of the kids at that point. If that coach isn't winning, we'll hear about it."

But, Collins asked, at what expense to the students?

"If that is a team that clicks, and they won and won and won and all are succeeding in all other parts of their lives, fabulous. That's exactly what we want," he said. "If those kids are struggling in other parts of their lives because they've unbalanced their lives toward football, for instance, are we doing our kids a disservice?"

Committee member Karen Stuefen said she believes the community wants that balance.

"Of course everybody wants to win, but not at the expense of the kids," she said. "I don't see this as a Penn State community."

Certain elements built in to York's athletics program allow for balance already, like having no-cut sports for undergraduates.

"There is a natural progression, with freshmen progressing to more competitive levels at the end," committee member John McDonough said. "We don't have a problem at the front end. It's the back end."

Collins also said he's heard dissatisfaction from parents about not being able to take their family on vacation during spring break and other holidays. Athletes often are prevented from participating in one or more games if they miss practice over the break.

"Many parents think, 'My value is to spend a week with my kid. York's value is for my kid to spend a week with their sport,' " he said.

But the problem goes back to winning, Pruneau said.

"Coaches will say, 'If you want me to be highly successful at the varsity level and the other schools are having kids practice over spring break, what happens when the York kids take a one-week break? Is that OK? As a coach I want to know if that's OK, because that might affect my wins and losses,' " Pruneau said.

Stuefen referred to the philosophy of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national nonprofit that strives to provide young athletes a "positive, character-building youth sports experience," according to its website.

"Central to our work is our models: The Double-Goal Coach®, whose first goal is winning, and whose second, more-important goal is teaching life lessons through sports; The Second-Goal Parent®, who concentrates on life lessons, while letting coaches and athletes focus on competing; The Triple-Impact Competitor®, who strives to impact sport on three levels by improving oneself, teammates and the game as a whole," the website says.

"That's what we really want to talk about," Stuefen said. "They have fleshed it out really well."

McDonough agreed, but he said he wouldn't call out that particular program in District 205 policy.

"If people adopt that philosophy, it incorporates a lot of what we're saying," he said.

The next step is to provide a survey to the community, then form focus groups to "flesh out more of what the survey (revealed), to get a clear definition of what the community wants," Pruneau said.

Cronan August 31, 2012 at 06:56 PM
Maybe you should step back, breathe and re-read my post. I never questioned the kids level of commitment, I am questioning the parents understanding of the level of commitment it takes to play a sport at this level. Also, I said EXACTLY what you said....most adults are able to schedule vacation time throughout the year with proper notice, it does not need to be over Christmas break or Spring break when some sports DO have practice. Take your vacations when there is no commitment. If that's a narrow window then it's a narrow window. Please enlighten me with your interpretation of balanced... I am a proud single parent of three wonderful student athletes. Talk about having to find balance. I'll send you a copy of the book! =)
Rfuller42 September 14, 2012 at 06:00 PM
Substantially less than 1% of all high school athletes go on to play professional level sports. One more win or loss during their high school sports career will not change that. In twenty years, the whole family will remember the vacations that they couldn't take, and no one else will care at all about that "great sacrifice" and "total commitment" made by that particular student. Gain some perspective and let them go away for Spring Break.
Cronan September 14, 2012 at 07:01 PM
One more win or loss does make a difference to COMMITTED student athletes, ask them! So you are saying in 20 years the whole family won't remember the achievements of the athlete? They will only dwell on a few vacations they had to take in December instead of March? Perspective huh? How sad. Now I see the problem...
1 Ply September 14, 2012 at 08:25 PM
"I don't see this as a Penn State community." what?
Cronan September 14, 2012 at 09:27 PM
1 Ply, I wasn't even going to touch that! Wth?


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