Rich-poor divide in high school sports

Data reveal inequality that threatens American Dream


EACH YEAR, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association compiles athletic participation data from public, charter, and parochial high schools across the state. In nine out of the past 10 years, the publicized narrative about the data has been the same: that athletic participation is increasing.

But below the surface, the data reveal some alarming trends about how athletic participation is distributed town by town and city by city. While youth in high-income school districts are playing as many sports as ever, students in low-income communities are far less likely to participate in school athletics at all.

In the state’s 10 poorest communities, the data show sports participation is 43 percent below the statewide average. By contrast, sports participation in the 10 wealthiest communities is 32 percent above the average. The rich-poor divide is troubling because many educators and analysts believe that participation in extracurricular activities such as sports plays a key role in academic success.

Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam, in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, says extracurricular activities teach students valuable soft skills such as strong work habits, self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, and a sense of civic engagement. Students engaged in sports tend to have higher grade-point averages, better work habits, and lower dropout rates, he says.

“Fifty years ago,” Putnam writes in his book, “offering opportunities for all kids to take part in extracurricular activities was recognized as an important part of a public school’s responsibilities to its students, their parents, and the wider community. No one talked then about soft skills, but voters and school administrators understood that football, chorus, and the debate club taught valuable lessons that should be open to all kids, regardless of their family background.”

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