Football vs. Algebra

Today is the Homecoming game at Fairfax High. The Rebels will face the Westfield High Bulldogs (by all accounts a formidable opponent). And all week the students have been getting psyched about the game.

Yesterday, students were supposed to wear animal print clothes in honor of Safari Thursday, all part of spirit week leading up to Homecoming, with its “Welcome to the Jungle” theme. That means several teens showed up to algebra class in leopard spot boots or zebra striped backpacks. Later that morning, the Homecoming Court was announced.

Football plays a special role in American high schools, albeit a foreign one to me, since I graduated from an all-girls high school. But it’s interesting to see how the varsity players stand out -- wearing suits on game days, and how they are honored during announcements and by teachers who wear football jerseys with their names on them.

A 2002 Brown Center report looked at high school culture -- and the special place that football and other sports hold -- with a survey of foreign exchange students and local teens. The report found that a strong majority of American and foreign students viewed success at sports as much more important to U.S. teenagers than to teens in other countries. By a smaller margin, both groups also said that math is valued less by U.S. teens than those elsewhere.

The study also looked into whether schools known for athletic prowess were likewise lousy at math...but found no real trend there. Fortunately, math and reading scores did not suffer from state championships.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 9, 2008; 12:07 PM ET  | Category:  Class Time
Previous: Math Reading List | Next: Where's the Algebra?


Distractions are not limited to state champions so you haven't shown that emphasizing sports does distract from learning or that academics would not improve from more celebration of academic achievement. Sounds like fertile ground for a more robust study.

Posted by: vmax02rider | October 10, 2008 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Good point. Any observations on this from your own high school experiences?

Posted by: Michael Alison Chandler | October 10, 2008 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Thinking about my own high school days: many football players were bullies, but that was overlooked because football was, you know, important. Later as a financially struggling student at the U of IL and later at the U of OR, I began to hate football, as I saw the football players get special dorms, special treatment, and their own free tutoring. I was a national merit scholar, but I didn't get any scholarship money for that. On the other hand, a good football player could come in to U of IL with an ACT of 14 and get a scholarship because football is somehow more important.

I would suggest as parents that we emphasize that math is easy and fun, and as alumni we tell our alma maters that we rate academic competence over high profile athletics. Not that this will happen any time soon...

Posted by: derekalison | October 10, 2008 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I found this NY Times article relevant:

The importance parents place on athletic success is obviously misplaced, and begins long before high school. I would end physical competitions between schools and avoid this fascination which has grown out of control. Let them compete on academics.

Posted by: staticvars | October 11, 2008 10:48 PM | Report abuse

After teaching high school for 15 years (lots of Algebra II classes during that time), I found that athletics was often more of a distraction than anything else. But I've always wondered about the cost of these programs. Are the supposed benefits of football and other games played by a relatively small number of students really worth the increasingly high costs of supporting them?

Posted by: tstahmer | October 12, 2008 10:14 PM | Report abuse

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