Taking potshots at high school athletics is a lot like stepping in the apple pie, polishing shoes with the flag and sticking one's tongue out at motherhood. As an American institution, high school competition ranks right up there.
But some Utah government and education leaders are beginning to think the whole thing has gotten out of hand. While acknowledging the potential benefits of athletics and other extracurricular activities to students and their schools, they suggest that the price may be getting too high to continue - both in terms of time and money. Activities have become the tail that is wagging the educational dog, critics say."Sports are a fungus growing on the academic program," a Davis school official said.The problem has sometimes manifest itself in budget allocations during tight years. One district hired new coaches while cutting back on counselors, for instance. Athletic programs appear to thrive even when academic programs are suffering from budget anemia.
Classroom time lost
"We need to be asking some questions," said Rep. Glen Brown, R-Coalville. He is concerned at the amount of time students spend away from scheduled classes to pursue their activities. For some students, it can add up to a third or more of their school time, especially in rural schools where it is easy for a student to get involved in the gamut of athletics and other activities.
Brown feels strongly enough about it to consider a bill for the 1991 legislative session that would financially penalize schools when too many students are out of class for such activities.
"The kids are simply out too much," he said. "I've had some teachers complain, usually anonymously, that they sometimes have problems introducing new concepts because so many of their kids are gone. Athletics shouldn't be allowed to disrupt school."
As currently proposed, Brown's bill would withhold the state's per-student funds from a school if 25 percent of its students were not in class on a given day. He recognizes that the proposal may need some reworking to make it fair to small schools, but he thinks the concept is sound.
In the 1990 session, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Brigham City, took a stab at it, introducing a bill that would have encouraged schools to enter interlocal agreements with local governments to shift some sports to the community. Springtime baseball is a natural for such a shift, he said. His bill never got out of committee.
Rep. Beverly Evans, R-Roosevelt, could be an ally. When an instructor from the Uintah Basin Area Technical Center couldn't maintain a concurrent-enrollment class for local high school students because so many were consistently absent, she suggested a survey to see how much school was being missed in the name of activities.
"In 47 days, one kid missed 23 days and one 25." When the matter was brought to the attention of the Duchesne Board of Education, a new citizenship policy was adopted that thwarted such use of school time. Now students can't miss more than nine days a quarter without taking a make-up class. "Students are having to make some choices this year. They can't do everything," Evans said.
In December 1989, the Jordan District Board sent a strong resolution to the Utah High School Activities Association, asking that athletic events be scheduled outside regular school hours. Their objections arose from a Brighton/Hillcrest girls' soccer match that was set at 9:30 a.m. on a school day. The two schools lost about 26,000 hours of learning time, the letter said.
A few weeks later, Brighton had a football game at 11:30 a.m. on a Friday. Again, many of the student body bought $1.25 tickets to the game, but many of them went elsewhere. Such events are a cheap way to miss school for a day, even if you aren't a fan, said Don Carpenter, recently retired Jordan Board member.
Principals are becoming more vocal about staging major athletic events during non-school hours. Bountiful Principal Rulon Homer, whose Braves captured the 3A championship this fall, "did it without losing an hour of school," he said.
Many districts now require that training and practices for major sports be held outside class time, as well as games.
The costs of high school activities are also a concern. In theory, the major sports, such as football and basketball, earn enough in gate receipts to support themselves. In some schools, they do - and help underwrite the costs of other activities as well. Such factors as lighted fields, winning teams and local support enter into the equation. Vending machines, special activities and fund drives help foot the bills in some schools.
Some schools actually make money with their sports programs. In Granite District recently, board members expressed concern with the hefty balances in some accounts, while students still were being charged for participation.
The high cost to students who want to participate in major sports also has been broached as a problem. Although the participation fee can be waived, the price of athletic shoes and other peripheral expenses probably keeps many students from even signing up, said Shirley Weathers of Utah Issues.
(Cheerleaders and drill team members are socked even more than the athletes, pricing many girls out of participation, some parents have complained.)
Schools work with students who want to participate and can't afford it, said Wendall Sullivan of Granite District.
The costs of building gymnasiums, fields, tracks and pools are borne by taxpayers and are a significant portion of the expense of any new high school building. Districts also pay for coaches and other personnel and for the costs of transporting teams.
In 1989-90, 9.4 percent of all the money spent for school transportation was for activities (excluding field trips), taking a $3.1 million whack out of the total $33,355,248 state school transportation budget.
The problem naturally hits rural, isolated schools more strongly, said Kelvin Clayton, transportation specialist with the State Office of Education. For instance, 41 percent of the Kane District transportation budget and 39 percent in Beaver District is used to bus students to activities, while only 1 percent of the Salt Lake District transportation budget is absorbed for that purpose.
With fuel prices rapidly increasing and highly unpredictable because of the Persian Gulf crisis, schools may have to reassess, Clayton said. The High School Activities Association has gone to great lengths to build team equality into athletic divisions, but financial realities could ultimately force teams to play closer to home. Crossing the state to play a school with similar demographics may no longer be feasible when fuel costs are added to overnight stays.
Another concern being aired increasingly often is the potential for injury of young athletes.
"It's a very serious problem," said Scott Hess, health specialist in the State Office of Education. While he didn't have any statistics on injuries in Utah, he said the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research reported 26 high school students died during 1982-83 and 11 suffered permanent paralysis.
A University of Washington study indicated that in male sports, 39 of 100 participants suffered injury, with football and wrestling at the top of the list. Among women athletes, the injury rate was 22 per 100. Two-thirds of the injuries occur during practice, when no medical standby is required, the study said.
High schools haven't kept up with advances in sports medicine, Hess said. Lawsuits claiming negligence are forcing schools into more careful practices.
The Utah State Board of Education recently upgraded certification requirements for coaches, along with criteria for trainers, and initiated more stringent training for all those working with young athletes.
GRAPHIC: Interscholastic athletics\
GPAs of Utah high school athletes
Fall Quarter 1990
Cross country: 3.38
Girls tennis: 3.43
Girls soccer: 3.29
1A baseball: 3.30
Source: Utah High School Activities Association
Number of students in interscholastic athletics:
Taxpayer expenditures for school activities 1987-88
Coaches differential: $1,784,940
School expenditures* $2,861,319
*Money guaranteed by vending, fund-raising, etc.
Activity revenues 1987-88
Gate receipts $1,145,018
Participation fees 581,756
Activity fees 1,234,374