On April 14, 2017, news broke in Albuquerque that Albuquerque Public Schools, New Mexico’s largest school district, would be cutting all middle school sports programs for the 2017-2018 school year due to budget concerns. Over 26 schools and roughly 3,400 students are going to be affected, resulting in roughly $600,000 in savings according to the Albuquerque Journal.
As a product of the public school system and the athletic departments of the various schools I attended throughout my primary and secondary education, I can only react to this with total devastation and revulsion. My heart goes out to those student athletes who won’t be able to compete next year. When I was in middle school I started to create a semblance of what we now call an identity. Kids are so malleable at that age and sports can be the proverbial bow to these children’s arrow, guiding them in a positive and productive direction
A lot of the argument being made is that students simply won’t be able to play any extracurricular sports through their respective schools. So what? It saves money and they're really just sports, right? In reality, sports are so much more than that to so many kids. Whether it’s an escape from a rough home life, an identity that they’re finally trying to cling to, or a way to find and connect with new friends, any sport creates amazing opportunities for younger children.
The sentiment of parents, students and teachers alike are very bleak. I interviewed two local coaches to ascertain what the feelings were of those who make a genuine difference in kids’ lives. The first of these was Austin French, a middle school track-and-field coach. He has direct influence with students as their coach and when asked about the perceived negative effects on students who wouldn’t be able to play their sport he had this to say.
“I really feel for these kids. I see a lot more kids getting in trouble because of the lack of an outlet for them. It’s not just effects on the kids though. There are going to be jobs lost across the board (coaches, officials, transportation) and it’s going to negatively affect the communities that these schools are in. “
This sentiment was also shared by high school basketball coach, teacher, and athletic director Roy Sanchez.
“It’s a bad practice to cut education based activities [athletics]… Learning to win and lose and work for a common goal are real life lessons that everyone should learn! Taking pride in playing for their school and representing their peers is an education based benefit.”
So emotionally and socially these students are being neglected because of the lack of support for sports. As an institution, schools lose on the sense of pride and community that families feel when their children get to represent the school and the student athletes themselves don't get to build up that sense of pride and responsibility that comes from playing for their school. Already, we have multiple aspects to middle school sports that expand much farther than simply kicking, throwing, or running. When asked if there are any alternatives to playing organized scholastic sports, French proposed club sports.
“If we’re looking for a costless solution, there could be a volunteer league for students to still organize and play. The issue with that though is the logistics involved. There is transportation, equipment, locations of play, and the people needed to coach and referee these games.”
This seemed like a legitimate creative solution, but there does also seem to be a cost involved. Now there is the option of club teams and off season teams like YAFL, AAU, and others. For a lot of students that can actually afford to participate club, this does seem to be a viable solution considering that many already participate in it. The issue that opposing viewpoints are bringing to the table is that lower income families that cannot normally afford to participate are going to lose out on the experience that comes from scholastic sports. Those that can pay, will. Those that can’t afford it, lose. Coach Sanchez had something to say about this too.
“Club sports are pay to play, grades are not emphasized… If they can afford to, [athletes] will be in club athletics.”
This seems to be in line with the other dissenting ideas, while Coach French had an interesting compromise to bring to the table.
“Club leagues could start offering discounted rates for middle school club sports to make up for the disparity. Club brings communities together and could create a sense of camaraderie that students won’t get from school athletics.”
According to QC Varsity, “Depending on the team, families can expect to pay $400 to $4,000 per summer to play, including uniforms.” This is just for summer basketball, not even taking into account other expensive sports such as football. They also quote a few prices for certain tournaments for kids to play in. All of these prices are out of pocket, mind you. Now while these are just for a summer of basketball, if there isn’t a “regular season” for a school, then there are going to be more students trying to play in AAU to make up for it. Which is going to cost more money.
What I think that people are ironically not considering is the fact that these are student-athletes. Studies have shown that students who also play a sport do better academically. Whether this is the physical activity positively influencing their mental capacity, or the idea of player eligibility motivating students to perform, the results are the same; playing a sport while in school produces better grades. Both French and Sanchez have seen positive effects of sports on academics. Sanchez made the comment when asked about grades specifically saying,
”Students that [participate in] athletics have higher grades, learn to budget their time better, and value being a part of a team… You know some kids would have no motivation if it wasn’t for athletics!”
French furthers the case for sports saying that it focuses and, in a sense, pushes students to perform well in school in order to play in their respective sport. These students work and learn to appreciate academics through their sport. When I asked French about the positive effects of sports he recalled a specific scenario with a student.
“I remember a student I coached this year that started out the track season with a 1.6 GPA. He loved to compete and by the end of the year he ended with a 3.0. He did that because of eligibility. Without the grades, you can't play.”
That’s an amazing turn around! Especially at such a seminal age where learning those specific values early on, bode well for the future as both a student and an athlete. Unfortunately, the thing that might actually take the biggest hit is the skill set. Many athletes grow their love and desire to play sports at a higher level in middle school. But if they’re looking to play at that elevated level, there’s a potential for three years of development that’s lost on those athletes. As it is, it’s incredibly hard for athletes in New Mexico to be recruited and picked up by colleges simply due to lack of exposure. And those students that do get picked up have to literally live and breathe their sport if they want any sort of shot. If that spark isn’t lit early on, then it’s going to be incredibly difficult to live up to that level of play in high school. Both French and Sanchez are of the same mindset that cutting that motivation early on just puts APS sports behind the curve. Those athletes that started playing in middle school rather than high school have possibly seven years of experience rather than just four, making it that much harder to take their skills to a higher level.
Disregarding the practical skills that these students get from actually playing their sport like shooting a basket or running a receiving route, kids can learn life skills from these sports. Teamwork, time management, conflict mediation, and emotional control are a few of many lessons that can be taught through sports. Professor Andy Billings is a proponent of teaching the understanding and consumption of sports. In his Ted Talk Sports Can Start Meaningful Conversations he stresses the idea that sports can teach us about race and discrimination, gender equality, religious affiliation, and many other things just by consuming sports culture. As it is sports is a diverse world, and as we consume sports in its various forms, we become diverse as well. These are essential ideals that middle schoolers in Albuquerque will be missing out on.
In my opinion, there are no winners in this situation. Students, teachers, parents, and coaches aplenty are going to suffer with the loss of middle school athletics. I would have been lost without sports in middle school. As the only child of a single parent, I needed something to keep me out of trouble. I could’ve fallen into the destructive and otherwise derelict activities that any angsty middle schooler is susceptible to. But I committed to basketball and I grew. I not only learned to put 100% effort into the things I do, but I planted the roots of what would become the strongest relationships I would build in my whole life. Without middle school basketball, I wouldn’t know my four groomsmen and best friends. I wouldn’t have transformed from a slow, pudgy kid to a tall, athletic basketball player. I wouldn’t have had a solid identity to take to high school. I wouldn't have had an identity at all. I feel horrible for those middle schoolers like me who turned to sports for so much more than just an extracurricular activity. I lament for the middle school student athletes that will lose out on that guidance and the brotherhood/sisterhood that stems from spilling blood, sweat, and tears with your peers. I can only hope that APS rethinks and amends their decision to cut middle school athletics, and I can only hope that those students that are the real victims here, bounce back and stay resilient in their efforts to play, talk, live, and consume their sports.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Professor Andy Billings’ Ted Talk.
“What was the lesson of my youth? Sports yield power.”