My 14-year-old son Jordan did not make the JV basketball team in his high school. Not very surprising really. There is no freshmen basketball team at his school and only six freshmen made the JV, out of a class of more than 400 students. Six freshmen who were all taller and better basketball players than my son: “They all deserved to be on the team ahead of me,” he told me, resigned to the fact that he would not be able to play his favorite sport for his school team. So now Jordan rides the bus home after school ends every day, no running around at practice or working out in the weight room with the rest of his buddies. The weight room, after all, is reserved for “athletes.”
Our nation sits in the midst of a growing obesity epidemic, one that threatens the health of our children, and we can’t muster the public will (aka the dollars!) to assemble freshmen basketball teams?
In North Carolina?!?
Obesity often starts in adolescence. Latchkey kids come home after school, sit in front of their laptops or tablets, and play video games. Cut from their school teams at the exact age when they are trying to figure out “who they are,” they decide sports aren’t their “thing.” (As a professor who starts working at five in the morning each day, I have rearranged my work schedule so I can play tennis with Jordan when he gets home from school. But not many kids have that option. And even fewer would relish the opportunity of coming home from school to hang out with their dads!)
If we care about our kids, we need to invest in their futures. And we need to help them establish lifelong exercise habits. But instead, we let them know that unless they are either freakishly tall or insanely talented athletes, they should find another way to spend their time.
This problem first hit me a couple years ago when Jordan competed against 40 other boys to get onto the seventh grade basketball team at his middle school. Jordan made the team that year, and even became a starter. But I kept finding myself wondering what happened to those other 30 kids who didn’t make the team. All of them were invited to join the wrestling team, which had a no cut policy in their middle school. But very few turned to that option.
Reminder: My family lives in North Carolina, not exactly the wrestling capital of the United States. In North Carolina, it is all basketball, all the time.
Now I know that some of those kids played in the local Parks and Recreation basketball league, where I help coach a team each year. Our recreational teams practice one hour a week during the season, and have one or two games per week. That’s not a lot of running around time for growing children. And not all families are able to enroll their kids in this program, because it costs money and it also means taking evening time to drive kids back and forth to practice.
My dream? That our public schools become recreational meccas! In my dreams, I see us constructing new gyms and practice fields at all of our schools. We find the funds to recruit additional coaches. We even pay for bus drivers to take the kids home from school after practices. In my imagination, Jordan’s old middle school would have fielded two seventh grade basketball teams. And large high schools like he is now attending, they would field two or three freshmen teams. That’s right, why not have a back-up freshmen team that played against other large schools’ second squads? Finally, I’d like to see us require athletic participation for all middle schoolers and high schoolers, perhaps expecting them to compete in at least two out of three sports seasons each school year.
You know what would happen if we made these kind of commitments? First off, our kids would stay more active. But there would be other benefits too. When evening time rolled around, and those kids were home studying, those gyms and fields would become community resources, enabling more adults to participate in healthy activities. This is important too. Many adults I know have a hard time playing pick-up basketball at night because there are no available gyms.
I recognize my idea is crazy. But no less crazy than the shortage of available gyms that limits how many nights per week my recreational team can practice.
I understand why people don’t like paying higher taxes. It often feels like tax money goes down some kind of black hole of bureaucratic incompetence. But I think most people, at least those of us in upper middle income classes and above, would gladly pay higher taxes if it would enable more of our children to participate in school sports. But instead, because of budget crunches, we are actually cutting back on school-based sports programs. I recognize the fiscal challenges facing local governments. And I understand people’s reluctance to pay higher taxes.
But budgets are about priorities. And people’s reluctance to pay taxes exists, in large part, because they don’t trust their tax money will be well spent. How about a referendum to raise money to build more school gyms? I’d be interested to see how that vote came off in a basketball crazy but southern (hence Conservative) state like North Carolina.
Obesity is a cultural disease. Changing our culture into one that promotes physical activity starts by making a priority out of funding school sports.
** Previously posted on Forbes **