Does Athletic Success Come at the Expense of Academic Success?

By 02/06/2013

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The path-breaking sociologist, James Coleman, was not a fan of high school sports. He thought the culture of athletic prowess swamped the culture of academic success. Schools should get rid of sports and channel that competitive spirit into inter-scholastic academic contests, like Quiz Bowl.

But James Coleman also believed that the enhanced social capital produced by church attendance was key to the success of Catholic schools. The adults would get together at church, share information about their kids and school, and thus be better positioned to work together to improve their school academically. The adult culture of academic success could prevail more easily if the adults were better connected with each other by seeing each other on a regular basis at church.

But maybe high school sports are the secular equivalent of church. Perhaps Friday night football is an event, like church, that gathers parents, allows them to share information about their kids and school, and more effectively work together to improve their school.

So which James Coleman is right? Is it the one who fears athletic success subordinating academic success or the one who thinks social capital is the key to school improvement?

Dan Bowen and I decided to examine this issue with an analysis of Ohio high schools. We look at whether high schools that give greater priority to athletic success do so at the expense of academic success. The results of our analysis are in the current issue of the Journal of Research in Education.

We found that high schools that devote more energy to athletic success also tend to produce more academic success. In particular, we looked at whether high schools with a higher winning percentage in sports also had higher test scores as well as higher rates of educational attainment. We also looked at whether high schools that offered more sports and had a larger share of their student body participating in sports also tended to have higher test scores and higher attainment.

Using several different specifications, we find that higher rates of athletic success and participation were associated with schools having higher overall test scores and higher educational attainment, controlling for observed school inputs. For example, we found:

With regard to attainment, a 10 percentage point increase in a school’s overall winning percentages associated with a 1.3 percentage point improvement in its CPI, which is an estimate of its high school graduation rate.

We also looked at whether schools that offered more opportunities to participate in sports had different rates of attainment:

When we only examine winter sports, an increase of one sport improves CPI by 0.01, which would be a 1 percentage point increase in the high school graduation rate. For the winter, the addition of 10 students directly participating in sports is associated with a 0.015 improvement in CPI, or a 1.5% increase in high school graduation rate.

In addition to attainment, we also looked at achievement on state tests:

We observe similar positive and statistically significant relationships between the success and participation in high school sports and student achievement as measured by the Ohio standardized test results. A 10 percentage point increase in overall winning percentage is associated with a 0.25 percentage point increase in the number of students at or above academic proficiency. (See Table 4) When we examine the effect of winning percentage in each sport separately, once again winning in football has the largest effect. Girls’ basketball also remains positive and statistically significant (at p < 0.10), but boys’ basketball is not statistically distinguishable from a null effect.

Lastly, we looked at the effect of participation rates in Ohio high schools on overall student achievement:

As for participation and achievement, the addition of one sport increases the number of students at or above academic proficiency by 0.2 of a percentage point. The addition of 10 students directly participating in a sports team improves the proportion of students at or above proficient by 0.4 of a percentage point. Both of these results are statistically significant at p < 0.01. (See Table 5) When examining just the winter season, adding one winter sport increases the percentage of students performing proficiently by 0.4 of a percentage point, while an additional 10 student able to directly participate in sports during the winter season relates to a 0.6 percentage point increase in students at or above proficiency (see Table 5)

It is a common refrain among advocates for education reform that athletics “have assumed an unhealthy priority in our high schools.” But these advocates rarely offer data to support their view. Instead, they rely on stereotypes about dumb jocks, anecdotes, and painful personal memories as their proof.

Our data suggest that this claim that high school athletic success comes at the expense of academic success is mistaken. Of course, we cannot make causal claims based on our analyses about the relationship between sports and achievement. It’s possible that schools that are more effective at winning in sports and expanding participation are also the kinds of schools that can produce academic success. But the evidence we have gathered at least suggests that any trade-offs between sports and achievement would have to be subtle and small, if they exist at all. Descriptively, it is clear that high schools that devote more energy to sports also produce higher test scores and higher graduation rates.

I guess James Coleman was right — er, I mean, the James Coleman who focused on social capital, not the other one who feared the culture of athletic competition.

—Jay P. Greene

Comment on this article
  • Michelle Meyers says:

    I feel that the problem with an over emphasis on sports in our schools lies in the extemely visible celebration of the athletes to the exclusion of the public acknowledgment of those students with high acheivement in academics. Let’s have assemblies that celebrate those who are working hard to obtain excellent grades rather than only those who excel on the field or the court. Maybe than our young people would strive for better grades instead of the largely unreachable goal of becoming top athletes.

  • Amanda Elefante says:

    Our School Board recently created an event called “Night of Pride” where all competitive student achievement outside the district is recognized: athletics, academics, and arts. Parents and community leaders are invited, and together, we all celebrate the individual/team achievements of our students. Accomplishments include successfully competing/placing in Reading Olympics, Odyssey of the Mind, Math Counts, Future Cities, Evirothon, Computer Fair, Debate Team, etc… In addition, students published at a local and national level are recognized, as are AP Scholars and commended & finalists for National Merit Scholarships. Our student musicians selected to play in our youth bands/orchestras, at both the county and state level, are also recognized. All our athletic teams that reached specific competitive levels are highlighted, for example our Boys Soccer team won the district championship last year. Students receiving athletic scholarships are also congratulated. It’s a tremendous experience to recognize all these students, together, as a community. The younger students are clearly inspired as they watch the high school students cross the stage and receive their applause. The High School Jazz Band plays music throughout the night which helps to keep the momentum. Lastly, we also recognize our coaches and staff. We include a slide show of everyone recognized with photos submitted in advance from families/coaches and it plays before and after the event. We are very excited to host another Night of Pride this year!

  • l j Moloney says:

    It does not Suprise me in the least that schools with good athletics tend to have good academics. What does Suprise me Is that James Coleman’s notion that
    “But the enhanced social capital produced by church attendance was key to the success of Catholic schools. The adults would get together at church, share information about their kids and school, and thus be better positioned to work together to improve their school academically. The adult culture of academic success could prevail more easily if the adults were better connected with each other by seeing each other on a regular basis at church.”
    It does not work that way. The conversation after Mass is rarely “let’s get together And work on a strategy to have the administration of St Paul high school offer AP courses in biology chemistry and physics next year”

  • Kent Jones says:

    How about this fact:
    Schools hold their athletes as well as other extracurricular activities such as Scholar Bowl, Marching Band, FFA, FBLA, HOSA, etc., to higher standards of achievement and conduct since they are representing the school in whatever venue out in public. Why do we set training rules (above and beyond school rules) and make the athletes abide by them? Frankly, I’m fed up with this liberal attitude regarding the lack of recognition for academic kids vs the recognition for athletes. This is one of those make everyone feel good so no one has hurt feelings. Not life and not reality!! Schools do enough to recognize academic achievement! Programs after programs have been created to recognize academic students. Sorry if they don’t get mentioned in the front page of the sports section!!

  • Kent Crowder says:

    There are circles that surround every individual. The first circle is the family, then friends, peers, role models, etc., you get the picture. The further out the circle of influence or in this case controlling the circle (whether of the individual or the systematic process) the more taking away of the power of the individual (which has already happened throughout history, i.e., must attend school until 18 yrs. old). Opinions, research, is all just that. Power to the individual! Make your own bed when it comes to your (their) future! The other James Coleman turned out ok, he just blamed others for not getting some recognition.

  • Tyler Ward says:

    Coming even from the standpoint of a person who never played highschool sports, I still feel like they are important (maybe even necessary) to improve overall academics and graduation rates. Not everyone in highschool is going to want to play sports, and not everybody needs to in order to achieve good grades. But the people who achieve good grades without playing sports do so because they like to and need no extra motivation. Sometimes the promise of a sports scholarship or the love of a sport can keep a student who would otherwise sink to the bottom of their class keep their grades up so they can play the sport and possibly recieve higher education. I also believe sports do some amazing things for students confidence. Every person wants their own identity and sometimes its in athletics, sometimes it lies in the arts, and sometimes its strictly education or leadership, but everybody wants that one thing that they’re the best at that boosts their confidence, and we all know confidence goes a long way and improves the ability to speak to people and network. Thumbs up for sports from this guy!

  • trainr says:

    There has been ample research, since the first “Learn to Move, move to learn” movement in the 70’s to now, it still amazes me people (like school boards and curriculum designers) still do not “get it”. We are designed to move, not sit and our brains are designed to muliti-task, our eyes are designed to intake huge amounts of information and reading is still a new skill as compared to when we first started running around on the Earth. I went to workshop sponcered by a Georgia University that actually showed an increase in scores if students had PE prior to their reading and math classes but although our school board paid for the workshop, nothing from it was incorporated. My school is a top academic school and a top athletic school under the idea of the “fundamental school model”. I am an ESE teacher and those students I have who participate in sports do better in school, but…they already have to have a 2.0 to participate….what if we had a program before school and at lunch where all students participated in some kind of activity (you would have to extend lunch and the overall day and you would have to hire a recreation therapist or monitor) but all students could benefit. (Private schools have extended lunches with exercise options during lunch and executives have longer lunches with a “gym component” including the military requires their employees to work out 1 hour minimum. Transportation after school often is the sole preventer to more students participating. It still is, the parents who can car pool and transport are the ones whose children participate not only in sports but clubs and tutoring. So many factors….but overall, even as a teacher I would benefit from a 20 minute swim and lunch and then get back into the classroom….

  • Denny says:

    They should not get rid of high school sports. For some kids, that is what keeps them in school. Having something productive to do after school is keeping them off the streets.

  • Cathy Gontar says:

    The US ranks 31st in the world on an international math test where other countries that do not have the huge investment we make in athletics are at the top. There are many such statistics which should lead Americans to question the high cost of sports and the low comparable investment in actually educating students. It is not fair to all of the athletes who leave high school with low literacy and unable to continue education since there is nothing there to continue.

  • John says:

    Remove an AP Physics class from the budget and almost no one complains, there are no protests, and no press coverage. However, try to remove freshman sports from a school budget and there are crowded meetings, public protests and newspaper articles galore. Something is wrong with that. The US ranks low in academics in the grand scheme – how come we keep trying to convince ourselves that we are right and virtually everyone else is wrong?

  • Annie says:

    So here it is, December 12th, 2013 and I’m just reading, this amazingly wonderful and uplifting article! Why? Because I feel this is where “charter” schools fall short: school spirit = acadmic achievement, then end! Please don’t get me wrong, scores, AP courses, are alimportant, but pride – school pride – is immeasurable!

    I identified the connection between athletic prowess and academic achievement in my master’s thesis…a long time ago, which makes me ‘smile’ rather than feeling old!

    We need to take a step back and take a long hard look at what exactly are we preparing our students for…

  • Toby says:

    I am so tired of people comparing the US to the rest of the world. “The US ranks 31st in the world on an international math test where other countries that do not have the huge investment we make in athletics are at the top.” 31st compared to what? In the US, ALL students are educated, not just the “Elite” students that ALL of ours are compared to. I other countries, students that do not achieve a certain score on tests are removed from the schools and sent to work. If that occured in the US, total outrage would result. I would place our top 10% of students against the rest of the world. Our students would do just fine, thank you. I’m so tired of hearing how horrible of a job our educators do. Oh, I have been an educator for the past 30 years and have heard time and time again how horrible we are after watching time and time again our students having great successes in whatever career they choose and in their LIVES.

  • marcus mcdaniels says:

    sports are cool

  • Patrick Dolan says:

    If you read the report, it clearly shows superior organization and money are the keys to sucess in both realms. Dr. Green and his researchers need to spend less time on and more time analyzing Ohio’s High School culture and funding. Simply put, to use a military studies euphamism, “Victory goes to the bigger battalions.” Parochial schools, which charge tuition and receive donations, are known to recruit the best athletes and scholars to maintain their dominance (See St. Ignatius, St. Xavier, Bishop Moeller, etc.) Additionally, the Ohio K-12 school funding formula , though found by the state Supreme Court to be unconstitutional in 1990, is still enormously dependent on local property and income taxes. Result? Richer districts to well in athletics and academics, poorer districts do not.

    The next study needs to examine poorer districts in Ohio, districts with little success in athletics and academics. I think the researchers will find there is a preponderance of “athletic success” first thinking at those schools.

  • isabelle says:

    this helped me with my school project, thanks

  • Kayla says:


  • Kaden says:

    This a great article. It helped me with my school essay.

  • vicente says:

    this essay is good

  • Bill Smith says:

    We live in an “idiocracy”, like the movie of the same name. There is nearly zero glory in U.S. schools for actually learning and achieving the academic things which help assure the lifelong income of the kids. A microscopic few sports players will make a living from it, but nearly all of them will have injuries that will last a lifetime and in some cases progress to surgery and or disability. All aspects of school should be about learning. Physical activity is beneficial, but it can be achieved a lot more cheaply in a physical education class that doesn’t involve head injury, destroyed knees, busted out teeth, broken bones, and bullying. Teachers and testers regulary grant higher grades to failing athletes, and give them extensive free tutoring. Why not do that for the other kids. The glory should go to those who learn. I propose a cheaper route to brain damage for our student athletes, simply install a hanging weight from the ceiling , and let the kids run into it with their heads. No coaches to pay, no pads, unifors, stadiums, tax money and the result would be the same, brain damage. But then the majority of kids might start receiving a bit of glory for academic achievement. Much of the athletic budget is hidden from public scrutiny by some simple tricks.

  • david lloyd kemp says:

    this a good article

  • Alec Carawan says:

    Good article, but too focused on the schools rather than the players. How do high school athletes measure up to the peers.

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