Kansas high school students could learn better life lessons without sports during COVID-19

Sports can teach valuable life lessons, but during COVID-19, so can their absence, writes Aaron Schwartz. (Getty)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Aaron Schwartz has been a teacher in the Kansas City area for 13 years.

I love sports. I grew up on the magic of baseball, became obsessed with the NBA and its offseason hysteria, and have more recently fallen in love with the beautiful game of soccer.

However, I never questioned my participation in our cultural obsession with sports until now. As with so many other issues in our society — health care, stewardship of the elderly, our obligations to our community, to the poor, to those with preexisting conditions — the pandemic has exposed what we really are beneath the thin veil of what we purport to be.

We have always had an unhealthy relationship to sports, one that the virus has simply revealed.

The life lessons and value of sports have been greatly exaggerated across our culture at large, but perhaps nowhere are these lessons more exaggerated than in high schools. We argue that sports teach teamwork, determination, grit, character and how to handle success and inevitable disappointment. Sports — in this way, we say — are an imitation of life, are perhaps a trial run for real-world situations that students will face off the field.

But life is an apt teacher of these lessons. Work will teach these lessons. Classrooms teach these lessons, even if our focus is on Shakespeare or Newton’s Laws or the Magna Carta.

There is, in fact, nothing that sports can teach us that life cannot, and in the face of one of the most teachable moments of our lifetimes, we are failing to teach the most important lessons to our young people — the very lessons we claim sports teach them.

In light of recent decisions across our region to continue with indoor high school athletics, against the recommendations of local health departments and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and against the backdrop of increasing suffering and loss that will not soon end, it’s worth examining some of these lessons that sports teach us and how we might teach them to our young people in this extraordinary circumstance.

We claim that sports teach determination, that if by force of will we push through immediate pain or hardship or loss or disappointment, our reward will be all the greater. We claim that delayed gratification is more important than immediate. COVID-19 has presented this challenge to all of us. It has been unfair to everyone. We have all been asked to sacrifice something this year, and tragically, some have suffered the ultimate loss. We have a chance to teach our young people that this disappointment, though painful in the immediate, is a chance to achieve a greater outcome in the future: a culture that values each life enough to really fight for it.

We claim sports teach teamwork, that the individual’s contributions to the whole only matter insofar as the team succeeds, or, in defeat, comes together to realize a greater good than its parts could achieve on their own. Our communities are experiencing great suffering, and we have a precious opportunity as individuals to contribute tangibly to the collective good. This opportunity costs very little and maximizes good across our community: that we wear masks, that we socially distance, that we give up our immediate gratification for the lives and well-being of others.

We claim sports teach character and integrity, that the process of competing and facing uncertain outcomes will shape us into people better suited for the inevitable adversity of life and its struggles. We claim sports teach us that who we are when we win or lose, when we play or when we practice, when the lights are on or off, should be the same person of character and principle: humble in victory and gracious in defeat. We have an opportunity to model grace and character to our students — to show them that sometimes integrity means sacrificing things we hold dear to preserve that which we hold more dearly.

I would ask: What lessons are we teaching students by allowing sports to continue? That immediate gratification is what matters most? That self-interest trumps the interests of the many? That our impulses are more important than our obligations? That when we make a commitment to something that is uncomfortable, we should use every lever of power available to change the terms of said commitment?

We committed to safely pursuing outdoor sports. We argued that being outdoors was safer, that our athletes would take protocols seriously, that it could all be done safely in that context. Our coaches worked tirelessly. Our students took it seriously. We still had transmission and outbreaks. Some games were canceled, some games were played, and still the virus spread. But it is our obligation to stop all vectors of transmission of the virus, even if the primary vector is not sports or school. It is our obligation to preserve life and to help each other process the disappointment and depression that often accompanies doing the right but difficult thing.

This is the most important lesson we teach as educators. We teach science and reason; we teach self-awareness and revision; we teach history, context, civics and community. But above all, we teach ethics and morality. Sports can teach valuable lessons, but so can their absence.

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