Thursday, September 15, 2005 | I must respectfully disagree with my colleague Tom Shanahan, who wrote an open letter to Dr. Carl Cohn, incoming superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, on the district’s need for more athletic coaches and more stable sports programs, specifically football.

With all the academic problems our public schools face – systemic underfunding, children not proficient in basic reading and math, a shortage of qualified science and technology teachers, a 30-percent dropout rate, inequities in scholastic opportunities between the haves and have-nots, the effects of pervasive poverty and troubled home lives, rundown facilities, a lack of counselors and nurses and librarians, overcrowded classrooms and minimal support for teacher and principal training – I can think of nothing more irresponsible than spending one more minute or one more penny on sports.

Before my son entered high school, I would tear my hair out over comments like Shanahan’s. Now that my son is in 10th grade at a local public high school, I have softened. But only slightly.

I have learned that high school athletic programs can serve a valuable purpose in a student’s life. Making the team can provide grounding, foster pride and school spirit, provide the opportunity for healthy physical exercise and keep our youth busy and out of trouble in the afternoons when practices and games take place.

However, with sports enthusiasm often comes parent and student insanity.

I have seen parents willingly donate thousands of dollars to high school sports programs in wealthy neighborhoods when schools in poorer areas a few miles down the freeway suffer from leaky roofs, bare library shelves and students who read three years below grade level.

I have seen families move to other cities and communities just because the parents want their sons or daughters to be the stars of a sports team and someone else’s children have already secured those prized positions at their previous school.

I have seen parents scream at other adults at sporting events and behave in ways they would never dream of doing in any other circumstance, all while the children watch.

I have seen sports take over a student’s life to such an extent that the student can no longer even play on the team because his or her grades have sunk too low.

I have seen student athletes at affluent schools with fancy sports uniforms and accessories that are way spiffier than the rags many poor children must wear to school because they cannot afford decent clothes or shoes.

And I have seen talented boys and girls sink into inconsolable despair when they fail to qualify for a team after a week of grueling tryouts. Because of the inordinate amount of attention and focus society and schools place on sports, these reactions, although extreme, are completely understandable for highly emotional, somewhat volatile teenagers.

In addition, one of the primary objections to adjusting school start times to a later, more sensible hour is that sports programs would suffer. Kids need time in the afternoons to practice, travel and play their games, opponents of later start times say. So the needs of an elite group of student athletes take precedence over the general health and well-being of the entire student body.

It is time to set some boundaries and readjust inverted priorities.

Athletics is fine as a healthy diversion. But, like true Americans, everything we do is in excess. We couldn’t just let basketball be a neighborhood pick-up game. We couldn’t just let kids play soccer in the park. We couldn’t just let our children bat the ball around in a grassy field on a lazy spring day.

Instead, adults got involved. And we organized everything. And made it competitive, intense and all-important. And we ruined it.

I now have the privilege of knowing a good many fine young boys and girls who will never touch, dribble, kick or bat a ball again as long as they live because some crazed coach or parent scarred them forever by turning a fun game into a matter of life or death.

Academic achievement must be school’s first and foremost focus. Talk to me again when every high school student becomes proficient in reading and math, understands basic principles of science and technology, graduates and heads off to a four-year university. When that day comes, I will be first in line to lobby for more attention for athletic programs in high schools.

But until that blessed day, let educators concentrate on scholastics, without distractions from well-meaning but misguided sports enthusiasts who can’t get their fill from 24-hour ESPN.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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