California Forum

Viewpoints: It’s time to bring public school sports off the bench

Pitching, hitting and fielding have become a central theme in my house. Not because it’s spring training; it’s that my daughter’s high school fast pitch softball season is starting.

Few pastimes have captured her imagination so completely. My daughter has been playing competitive softball since she was 8 years old and she loves it. Some of her oldest and best friends are her teammates, and the experiences they have had will stay with them forever.

It’s a love that I understand. I was a high school athlete and also coached high school tennis for a number of years. The friendships, camaraderie and the competition from those experiences left an indelible imprint on me.

I bring this up because years of budget cuts coupled with the fixation on testing has relegated physical fitness and sports, like art and music, to an afterthought in many schools. Participation on a sports team is viewed as an add-on because schools have become all about narrow academics and focused on test scores. Class schedules are constructed as if to discourage kids from playing sports rather than facilitating the experience.

As we reassess our vision of public education, and now with some restoration of dollars coming into our schools, it’s time to make sports and physical education an essential component of a K-12 experience once again. And it’s more than just offering students a healthy physical outlet or a safe place to spend afternoons. It’s more than teaching about teamwork, which will have benefits later in life. It’s also about fun and the joy of playing.

Our job as educators isn’t just about teaching the basics. We need to help students become well-rounded individuals, and playing sports is a part of that. Athletics help students balance their lives. Participation shows the value of practice, training and sacrifice, and gives them experiences they will never forget.

Sports not only push young people to test their physical limits. They also encourage community involvement and give educators more tools for motivating and inspiring students and communicating with families.

The late George Sheenan, a physician and distance runner, said it best: “Sport is where an entire life can be compressed into a few hours … where the sinner can turn saint and the common man become an uncommon hero, where the past and future can fuse with the present. Sport is singularly able to give us peak experiences where we feel completely one with the world and transcend all conflicts as we finally become our own potential.”

Finding peak experiences. Transcending conflicts. Realizing our potential. Doesn’t that sound like exactly what quality public education should be providing students and families? I think of my daughter and her softball teammates.

Our schools need to encourage kids to play sports and be physically fit. Elementary schools need credentialed PE teachers, not just someone who rolls a ball out on the field.

Secondary schools should have intramural athletic programs for kids to learn and play sports. For those kids with advanced skills, schools need to facilitate participation in sports rather than make it a burden on students who want to be scholar-athletes.

Sports is about helping our students and children lead richer, fuller lives, creating memories that will last a lifetime, and having a ball.