My college had no football program, but I didn't miss it – I had gone to a high school too small for a team. Instead of giant stadium lamps, my “Friday night lights” were more likely to be the recessed fluorescent bulbs of a library or the flickering tube of a television.
So when I say that high schools and universities can survive nicely without football, I'm not just speaking hypothetically. In fact, I would argue that high schools would do better to redirect their time and attention to intramural sports instead of participating in sports leagues.
That's heresy, of course.
After all, I teach students who come to school solely to play a sport. Their commitment to academic achievement is piggybacked onto their deeper love of football or basketball or soccer or track or tennis – and for the most talented athletes, their performance in high school is a way to pay for and play in college.
Even the majority of students who participate in sports in high school and who have no interest in playing after graduation benefit in undeniable ways from their time on a team.
Make no mistake: Coaches are surrogate parents for many players, and students learn life lessons from sports that they might not learn anywhere else. When dying professor Randy Pausch summed up the most important influences on his life in The Last Lecture, he described his football coach, Jim Graham, who instilled self-esteem by working his players hard.
For measly pay our high school coaches spend hours every afternoon and weekend drilling, practicing, planning. Most of them are also classroom teachers, and finding time to create lesson plans and grade papers can be a challenge.
But coaches could be just as important an influence on intramural teams, and eliminating cross-town rivalries would also eliminate much of what is wrong with high school sports: Adults behaving badly.
Witness the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools player eligibility scandal, when coaches and parents gamed the system to put students on teams outside their attendance lines. That's not surprising, really – parents with the financial means to choose real estate in more desirable school attendance zones are gaming the system in another way – and the end result is that instead of having equal resources and opportunities, schools vary in what they are able to offer students.
Or look at the high school football scores in a Saturday morning paper. Most of the games are hard-fought and honorable, but a few coaches run up the scores while their second and third strings sit idle. What valuable life lessons are those coaches teaching their players? That winning isn't enough? That you must also humiliate and vanquish your opponents?
Or try to find any high school sport where some parent doesn't make a scene yelling at his child, a coach, the ref, another parent. Or try to go to a football game where adults don't boo teenaged athletes with scorn and mockery.
Intramural sports would stop much of that bad behavior.
And here's another heresy – let's extend the school day an extra hour and make intramural sports what kids do before they go home for the afternoon. Students would be more physically fit. Coaches would have their weekends free. Parents could start to appreciate the beauty of the game once it is freighted with less significance.
Not that intramural competition is insignificant. It's just significant in a way that, at least to me, seems healthier than the rivalries we currently promote.
My older son has a college T-shirt that pays tribute to intramural competition. Each freshman who enters Yale is assigned to one of twelve “colleges,” a residential hall with its own dining area, courtyard, master, and dean. Until they graduate, students live with, eat with, and socialize with the other students in their college. When Yale alumni list their graduation dates after their names, they include the abbreviation of their residential college.
The front of my son's T-shirt shows the crest of his college, Saybrook, and the years that Saybrook won the Gimbel Cup, the intramural prize for the highest GPA. The back is both celebratory and self-mocking. It says, “Our group of randomly assigned students is smarter than yours. Saybrook has won the Gimbel Cup 11 Times. That's 11 times more than Davenport, 10 times more than Branford … ”and so on, listing each of the other residential colleges in the most whimsical bit of trash talking I've ever seen.
I could say that in a perfect world all trash talk would include this paradox of pride and humility – but that heresy might be the most outrageous of all. Better to hope for something less lofty – perhaps that adults learn to behave like the important coaches we are both on and off the field.