By Anna Popnikolova, assistant editor-in-chief

There’s a difference between a child who participates in Little League and a teenager who spends every single afternoon at sports practice, has no time or energy to participate in anything else, and is forced into unhealthy competition on a daily basis; between a parent signing up a child for a sport to improve their physical health, or a teenager participating in an athletic extracurricular to keep in shape or let out energy and stress — and a heavy commitment to a sport that, let’s be real, has no real material value in a teenager’s life. 

Growing up, many-a-time the automated response to what do you want to be when you grow up? was “a pro football player” or “pro soccer player”. And, realistically, none of the kids I grew up with have any probability of even playing those sports in college. 

There are a little more than 1,093,000 high school football players in the United States right now. Of those, 6.5% (around 71,000) will play for the NCAA in college. And after that? Only 1.6% of college players will get drafted into the NFL. That’s about 0.1% of the original number of high school football players, or about 1,000 players. Out of 1 million football players, only about 1,000 will get into the NFL. And from there, there’s really no ready-made career for these players.

To put that into perspective, the chances of an average American becoming a millionaire during their lifetime ranges from 6.4% to 22.3%. 2% of working actors in America make a living off of their careers. 77% of drivers have gotten in at least one motorized vehicle accident, or will. 

The FBI has an acceptance rate of a little less than 20%. The NFL has a 1.2% acceptance rate of college football players. You have a greater chance of getting into the FBI than being drafted into the NFL.

What about other sports? A kid playing Youth Ice Hockey — and continuing to do so throughout high school and college — has an 0.11% chance of making it into the NHL. In a study by Jim Parcels in 2002, 30,000 youth hockey players were observed to see how many would make it into the NHL. Of the 30,000 original players, 48 were drafted into the NHL (0.16%), 39 actually signed a contract (0.13%) and 32 players actually ended up in an NHL game. (0.11%) About 1/1000 players will make it into the NHL — comparatively, the acceptance rates for Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are 4.6% and 6.7%, respectively. Your chances of getting into two of the most prestigious universities in the world is higher than being a member of either the NHL (0.11%), the NFL (0.1%) or the NBA (0.03%). In fact, the chances that a student who applies will get into MIT are about 67 times higher than the chances that a student who tries will become a member of the NFL.

And honestly, that’s not the athlete’s faults. It’s not the students’ faults. It’s the system’s fault. It’s the system — the sports organizations, the leagues, the atmosphere surrounding sports, the society that we live in; American society and its relationship with sports. I dare say that we obsess over athletics to an unhealthy degree. The quality of our other focuses—creative and educational focuses, for example—is significantly depleted by the incessant focus we seem to have with sports. We seem to place the value of sports above the value of all other extracurriculars; that’s a problem. In fact, that’s a big problem. Public high schools in America spend about three times more money on athletics than they do on educational aspects of their school budget.

On September 21 of this year, the Nantucket Public Schools school committee met to go over campus planning for the remainder of the school year and projects that would begin planning and organization in the future. One of these proposed projects was athletic improvements — these including the installation of a 400-meter track, LED lights on Field 1, a press box and grandstands for Field 2, a baseball field and tennis courts on Backus, parking lot expansions near athletic fields, and additional contingency costs. All these project costs add up to $17,500,000. The school only has $1,100,000 in funding— and the ATM funding requests are for $16,400,000 to begin the project. Town funding requests are planned to end this month, and construction document production is set to end in December. Construction is set to begin July of 2022 and end spring 2023. That is, if they manage to get all their funding. 

I understand that there are just some problems that can’t be overlooked. There’s some work that just needs to be done — the track is made of cinder and is not code compliant. But tennis courts? For 1.4 million? More baseball fields? For 1.9 million? Dozens of students have expressed dismay with the idea of new tennis courts.

Frequently, I’ve heard: there aren’t very many kids in the school who play tennis. And they’re rich enough to afford to play tennis in private courts. Honestly, some of them even have their own tennis courts. 

I’ve heard: the school gives funding to sports when there are literally holes in the ceiling.

I understand their frustrations—I feel them, too. All across the school, facilities need to be redone. We have teachers on carts because we don’t have enough classrooms, enough space for all the students entering the school. We don’t have enough teachers and we don’t have enough bus drivers. Why? Because we have educators who can’t find housing on the island. Our school is falling apart, and what are the decision makers doing? Spending 17 million dollars on tennis courts. 

Forgive the student body if we’re a little vexed.

There isn’t anything to excuse the utmost veneration our systems give to athletics. Not just on Nantucket, but in the entire country. That undeserved devotion these schools give to their sports teams. Their beloved star athletes who have a 0.1% of ever doing anything with the sport they give so much of their lives to, the star-players who certainly aren’t doing anything to raise the school’s GPA stats, their prodigies who, let’s be real, spend their afternoons and nights tossing a ball around some grass. 

I know there’s more effort that goes into athletics than that. I know that these kids spend hours in the gym, building muscle endurance and stamina. I know they exercise and exercise and exercise—they diet to keep fit, they run laps, they train and train and train to play their sport. The level of commitment that they put into it is crazy. But that’s the thing. These are high school athletes. These are children. They shouldn’t have to be putting that much pressure on themselves. They shouldn’t be forced to work as much as they’re being worked. It feels like, sometimes, these kids are being worked to their absolute breaking point. Not their “personal best”, not their “maximum potential”. Their breaking point. The mental strain of all that work is scary

I mean, they have to keep their grades afloat to even be allowed to play — but how are they expected to do well in school when all of their time is taken up by their athletic commitments? It’s hard to see how a kid can have both; and I say kid because these are kids. We’re in high school. We’re not even in college. Most players are under 18 — and even those who are over 18 can’t be expected to be full functioning adults. That’s what high school is for: to teach kids how to be mature and responsible. It’s not to dump responsibility after responsibility on them and show them how they can best handle it by throwing them in the deep end before they know how to swim.

No, that metaphor might just be too easy. Throwing a kid into the deep end of a swimming pool before it knows how to swim with training weights tied to its ankles. A skilled swimmer, sure, would be able to handle those. But a beginner? Someone who can’t even swim? They can’t be expected to swim laps. I mean, they shouldn’t even be expected to keep their heads above the surface. 

This is ridiculous handling and expectation  of sports systems towards children, promoting behaviour that overworks, overstresses, and overwhelms student athletes. Aren’t sports supposed to be fun? Aren’t they supposed to be a relaxing, lighthearted activity for kids to do with their friends after school to let out some energy?

We’ve come a long way from kicking a soccer ball around the muddy playground fields during recess in 5th grade. These so-called “team” sports are supposed to  foster “healthy competition”. In reality, they’re teaching kids toxic competitiveness, behaviors that are hard to overcome later in life, habits that they will keep forever, and ideals that are simply unrealistic for the future. There’s an unspoken win at all costs expectation: win or you’re a failure; if you’re not the best player on the team, you’re not enough. There isn’t a high enough level of individual training, and there’s too much competition. Even inside of sports that are supposedly composed of “teamplay,” players are constantly pitted against each other to fight for the top spot, the MVP. The best, the best, the best.

Why do we do this to kids? Why do we force them to give their entire personal lives up for a sport that lets them gain so little? They spend their time training to be the best, and even when they do manage (if they manage) to be the best, it’ll never be enough. Honestly, it will never be enough. There will always be someone better. And better doesn’t mean more talented. Sometimes, better means… more physically adapted. Calmer in stressful situations. Richer. Taller. Stronger, naturally. More willing to give up time, space, and personal relationships. More likable. Someone with more connections. I mean, advantages that cannot be manipulated. There are some aspects that we can’t control. And that’s not fair.

In fact, nothing about the current outlay of sports systems in schools right now is fair. Not to players. Not to their families. Not to coaches. Not to the academic systems of the school. Not to the systems that need money, and aren’t getting it. Not to the overworked athletes. Not to the students who are naturally at disadvantages in the athletic systems, and not to students who are not athletes. Not to the teachers who don’t get money that they need. Not to the kids who are literally getting their lives torn away— getting injured, bullied, discriminated against, and overstressed, developing anxiety disorders, unhealthy relationships with competition, unhealthy training and dieting habits, I mean, the list goes on. Too many problems are being caused by the unfair, unhealthy processes surrounding the athletic system. And honestly, does the good even come close to outweighing the bad? Can any positive aspect of playing sports in high school do anything to justify the negative effects? Does “school spirit” and the excitement of homecoming week mean that we can continue treating athletics the way we do? Falsely giving children optimism for a future career that will never happen? Working them to their breaking point? No. It doesn’t.

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