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School Sports: A Right? A Privilege? A Necessity?

Scholastic sports programs teach many valuable lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom. Courts have upheld for years that students should consider participating in a sport as a privilege, not a right. Athletics are extracurricular activities and not the primary purpose of the school curriculum. Although eligibility rules vary by school district and on individual campuses, most secondary schools and colleges require student-athletes to maintain a grade point average to participate. Does this make sense from a health perspective?

Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the United States, putting children and adolescents at risk for poor health. For children and adolescents aged 2-19 years in 2017-2018:

  • The prevalence of obesity was 19.3% and affected about 14.4 million children and adolescents.

  • Obesity prevalence was 13.4% among 2- to 5-year-olds, 20.3% among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 21.2% among 12- to 19-year-olds.

  • Obesity prevalence was 25.6% among Hispanic children, 24.2% among non-Hispanic Black children, 16.1% among non-Hispanic White children, and 8.7% among non-Hispanic Asian children.

Obesity during childhood can harm the body in a variety of ways. Children who have obesity are more likely to have:

  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

  • Increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.

  • Breathing problems, such as asthma and sleep apnea.

  • Joint problems and musculoskeletal discomfort.

  • Fatty liver disease, gallstones, and gastro-esophageal reflux (i.e., heartburn).

Childhood obesity is also related to:

  • Psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.

  • Low self-esteem and lower self-reported quality of life.

  • Social problems such as bullying and stigma.

We all know that sports are great for your physical health. But what about the mental health benefits?**

  • 75% to 90% of doctor visits are for stress-related illnesses. Exercise causes your body to release endorphins and reduces the levels of cortisol and adrenaline.

  • Studies have shown that 20+ minutes of exercise each day can make people feel calmer several hours afterward.

  • Playing sports forces you to concentrate on the task at hand. This helps you clear your mind and calm down. It also helps you sleep better.

  • Participation in sports can have long-term effects on your mental health. Researchers studied 9,688 children who had physical or sexual abuse, or emotional neglect. They found that those children who took part in team sports had better mental well-being when they were adults.

Taking part in sports in a group has an even greater impact on mental health than individual sports.

  • Researchers in Australia found that women who played tennis in clubs had better mental health than those who exercised alone.

  • A study of Norwegian teenagers found that those who played in team sports were less likely to smoke cigarettes and use cannabis as adults.

  • Researchers in Korea recommended the use of sports to help teens combat internet addiction.

  • Exercise was found to be as effective as standard antidepressant treatment in one study, with modest amounts of exercise helping to improve depression.

  • Exercise can improve some symptoms of schizophrenia, including loss of motivation and thinking difficulties.

So why does participation in school sports programs rely on grades?

I can certainly understand schools' focus on academics driving a need to enforce the values of academic effort. But effort does not always equate to GPA. Children who are struggling academically may feel stigmatized and isolated by being benched, which in turn contributes to mental health issues.

Consider some common symptoms of childhood depression

  • Feeling sad

  • Crying for seemingly no reason

  • Irritability

  • Feeling hopeless

  • Exhibiting frustration and anger

  • A need to be reassured often

  • Overly critical of themselves

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Have trouble making decisions

  • Self-esteem issues

  • Feel like they’re worthless

  • Sleeping too much or not enough

  • Changes in eating habits

  • Unable to standstill

  • Not taking care of hygiene properly

  • Problems with schoolwork

  • Staying away from friends

  • Body aches and pains

How many of these symptoms might affect a child's ability to keep up with school work, study effectively and make the grades they need to play sports? Should we penalize these kids who are already suffering?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that all children with disabilities are to be given a free appropriate public education. I would suggest that this education for students with learning disabilities and mental health concerns include an awareness of the benefits of physical education and team sports, and that they not be incentivized.

Here is a link to a great article that explores the matter further and offers tips on how to address problems with grades as a parent.

And this is a real gem of a video to round it out our general discussion of grades.




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