Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chester editors stake themselves against cuts to school athletics

Speaking of wars and principles, the editors in Chester County sally forth with their own dour pleading on the subject of school budget cuts. Their plea: Save the games.

The Chester County School Board is faced with the daunting and unenviable task of finding ways to cut $2.5 million from the budget. That comes on top of other cuts the board has had to make in recent years. No matter what area is the target of a cut someone, whether it be a teacher or a student, will be worse off because of it. That's the reality, painful as it is.

Editor's note to editors: Chester County does not go without representation in the General Assembly, that august body which alone has the constitutional authority to close corporate tax loopholes and thereby raise sufficient funds to preserve every single position and program now being eyed for elimination. I would expect the editors of the county's newspaper to be well-acquainted with these representatives and have easy access to them, not to mention the power of the press with which to voice sentiments to this effect.

As to the editors' plea:

One possible cost-saver mentioned at a school board meeting last week was the elimination of some athletic programs. Not ever sport is a money maker or even self-sustaining. Uniforms, helmets, pads, coach's pay and gas for the bus all cost money, sometimes a lot of it. It's understandable that when savings have to be realized, every area has to be looked at, especially those that are not directly involved in classroom learning.

Still, we hope other alternatives can be found.

Sports serve a very valuable purpose to students. The federal government is focusing on anti-obesity campaigns for young people now. Regular exercise, which sports provide, is obviously part of the equation where keeping young people is concerned. The benefits of sports go far beyond a fit body, however.
We know of some students who only give effort in the classroom because they want to stay eligible for athletics. Obviously their priorities are not in order, but if the want to play basketball or football leads to a student getting a diploma, it is worth it.

Respectfully, many things are regrettable in these suppositions.

First, the appeal to good health as a justification to preserve high school athletics programs is laughable, and especially the invocation of First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign, as South Carolina ranks consistently as a national leader among states in numerous indicators of poor health. Ensuring the good health of the poor and working class has never been a priority of the state's aristocracy; have we forgotten we're less than a century removed from the pellagra epidemic of the Upstate's mill villages? High school athletics programs by themselves haven't yet overcome generations of damage from the old three M's: meat, meal and molasses. It's unlikely that preservation of those programs this year will accomplish it.

As for "some students who only give effort in the classroom because they want to stay eligible for athletics," I wonder how the editors typed the words with a straight face, considering the long tradition of newspaper editors in this state -- conservative and progressive -- who appropriately prized and promoted education for its own sake. N.G. Gonzales, assassinated founder of The State, would blanch at the reluctance of today's editors to fight for anything less. And thankfully for the longtime Charleston Post and Courier's editor,
W.W. Ball, education provided him and many others their ladder to achievement when his athletic capacity never matched his athletic ambition. Familiarity with Shakespeare and the Romans by age nine, on the other hand, served him masterfully for a lifetime. Whose responsibility is it today to inculcate the same philosophies in modern youth? Do not our editors play a part?

They continue, and their rationale improves slightly:

Chester County is blessed to have coaches that put a pretty high premium on academics. Many teams have mandatory study halls that force players to spend time learning. Partly because of coaches making athletes spend as much time hitting the books as hitting the blocking sled, the number of county athletes earning college scholarships has jumped precipitously in recent years. Our three high schools have sent football, basketball, baseball and softball players, not to mention swimmers and rodeo participants, to colleges and universities as far away as Missouri, Alabama, New York and California. Not all of those students would have had the chance to further their education without those athletic scholarships.

It is true enough that colleges and universities award athletics scholarships, and that these scholarships draw students into their freshman years at some colleges and universities. But as discretion is the better part of valor, let's stop there before gilding lilies; not every college freshman on an athletic scholarship makes a college graduate. I would propose to compare their graduation rates with students on academic scholarships -- or students sans scholarship -- but we're far enough afield already.

There are lessons to be learned on the field of play too, like hard work, determination and teamwork. We've seen more than a few students over the years who have attitude and academic problems get completely turned around about the discipline they learn playing a sport. We had a story a few weeks back about the rise of gang activity in Chester. Gangs often prey on young people who want to have a sense of belonging to something. It is certainly preferable for a kid to belong to a high school sports team than the Bloods.

Gang activity can be addressed with sufficient attention to provisions for law enforcement, yet another issue that Chester's legislative delegation might appropriately address. The field of play isn't the only, or even the best, venue for lessons in character. No one argues the preferability of keeping a student in school and out of gangs; perhaps attention to early childhood education programs would obviate the need suggested by the editors for high school athletics to serve the purpose.

The editors blessedly state the obvious:

Athletics certainly can't take precedent over academics, since learning and preparing for life beyond graduation is really what students are supposed to get out of school.

If only they left well enough alone.

Maybe the board can come up with some creative solutions, like a dollar-or-so increase in ticket prices to attend games. Whatever the ultimate decisions are, we hope cutting athletics at our schools is a last resort.

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