What happens to learning when sporting ambitions trump academic goals?

Marie Larneby
Department of Sport Sciences, Malmö University

Steven J. Overman
Sports Crazy: How sports are sabotaging American schools
252 pages, paperback
Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi 2019
ISBN 978-1-4968-2131-7

In Sports Crazy: How Sports are Sabotaging American Schools, Professor Steven J. Overman discusses, problematizes, criticizes, and suggests constructive change for interscholastic sports – one of the largest non-academic school programs in the United States. Overman offers the reader a historical journey from mid-1800s and public high schools’ organized sports and interschool competitions, to the contemporary solid and well-established school sport system and its governance, funding and professional coaches. Sports Crazy meticulously describes and explains how interscholastic sports, as a popular and major extracurricular activity, evolved from physical education and developed as a force in itself. In the US, 80% of middle schools and 98% of high schools sponsor interscholastic sports programs. Throughout the book, Overman deals with and reassesses taken-for-granted assumptions of what role elite interscholastic sport play in schools for the athletes, (other) students, teachers, coaches, schools, parents and spectators.

The purpose of Sports Crazy is to examine the current status and consequences of elite interscholastic sports programs in American schools. Sports Crazy consists of 11 chapters, all full of detailed facts, previous research and a considerable amount of examples from many school districts in different states. It is clear that Overman wants to provide an authentic description of this phenomenon, and simultaneously this ambition enables a critical scrutiny and discussion. This is definitely a topic with much to address and discuss, and – as is central in this book – to problematize and suggest solutions to.

I perceive that the book consists of three parts. The first part is descriptive and gives a broad understanding of what school sport is in American schools. The second part provides insights in the everyday life and practice of schools and the individuals involved, parents, boosters, fans, student athletes and academics, as well as norms and culture. The third part of the book zooms out and pulls the strings together.

Overman shows, through examples, that athletes often are celebrated for achievements, while prestigious scholars who have earned academic scholarships may not be celebrated in the same ceremonial way.

Part 1: Interscholastic sports in American schools

The first part of the book, chapters 1–3, positions interscholastic sports in American schools. Chapter 1, “Interscholastic sports in context”, provides the reader with a thorough review of the American educational system and the place interscholastic sport has in it. Overman presents the differences between physical education, extracurricular programs, intramural sports and interscholastic (elite) sports. “Understanding school sports: looking back, exploring abroad”, the second chapter, brings the reader into a broader contextualized understanding of school sports in the US, providing a background to understand the problems Overman deals with. The historical part is placing the contemporary situation in a broader context. Chapter 2 also shows comparisons with international school sport. Overman argues that “The United States is one of very few developed nations where athletics are intimately intertwined with the education system”, and that sports are “central to the culture of American schools to a degree that is absent in other nations” (p. 32). “The problems with governance, funding and professional coaches” are dealt with in chapter 3. Central for this chapter is the fact that a pressure for winning on sports teams have led to a budget shift in some (not all) school districts: sport facilities are prioritized over laboratories or libraries. The role of the professional coach is also discussed, which is of interest and relevant to many sport schools and the clubs that schools collaborate with – in the US and internationally.

Part 2: Everyday life and practice in American schools

This second part, chapters 4–8, invites the reader to the school sport context. In chapter 4, How parents, boosters, and sports fans drive the agenda, Overman approaches the everyday life and practice related to interscholastic sports. The following quote says a lot on what role and symbolic capital interscholastic sports can have for a community: “Team sports such as football and basketball are the particular bearers of community prestige (…). Schools came to realize that they would benefit from providing something the local population could identify with. Sports can serve as a unifying force within the community” (p. 67). Spectatorism and fandom is a part of school sports culture that is absent in Sweden, since interschool competition does not take place. However, Swedish spectators and fans are at other competitive sport arenas. The force of spectators and fans is one of the clues to why American interscholastic sports are such a popular phenomenon. Reading this chapter brings up memories of the movies set in American high schools that I have seen since I was teenager. In Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington’s character, the professional football coach, is both contested and revered depending on the team’s failure sand successes.

In chapter 5, “Sports culture rules in the American high school”, Overman successfully uncovers core features of school culture I believe most of us are familiar with. One example is male power and gender inequity, which is not only – but strongly – related to sports. Overman exemplifies this with the homecoming ritual that valorizes male athletes as well as other public recognitions of male athletes that result in status and privileged treatment (p. 91). I argue that Overman’s section on Jock Culture (p. 93–97) should be read by undergraduate sport science and PETE students as a good example of how school sports, gender, power and the process of othering is closely interlinked. I reflect on how this culture is reproduced, legitimized and valued by movies such as She’s all that about a high school jock who makes a bet that he can turn an unattractive girl into the school’s prom queen (albeit, in some movies, this is to some extent challenged). Overman also devotes a considerable section of this chapter to the anachronism of cheerleading (p. 100–109). Cheerleading is a popular (mostly female) activity connected to (male) team sport. It is a high-status activity that enables female students’ space and visibility, as prominent athletes but also as a symbol of femininity, which sometimes lead to a perception of female cheerleaders as sexual objects or sluts. The Jock culture, school spirit and culture, and cheerleading are closely intertwined.

“The troubled relationship between interscholastic sports and academics”, chapter 6, tells a story of how and why sports often triumph over academic achievement. Overman shows, through examples, that athletes often are celebrated for achievements, while prestigious scholars who have earned academic scholarships may not be celebrated in the same ceremonial way. Another issue raised is the time commitment – student-athletes can spend a vast amount of hours on sports in comparison to hours spent on academic achievement. In the end, it is the academic achievement that counts, and Overman argues that sport and academics can coexist, if schools shift to an intramural or sports club model instead of interscholastic sport.

Chapter 7, “Physical fitness – or not? – of the student-athlete”, deconstructs the idea of the student-athlete as healthy and fit. In relation to many physically inactive students, the student-athlete is (most often) active. However, are the interscholastic sports activities always healthy? Eating and exercise disorders and sport related injuries are problems that interscholastic sports must deal with. The last chapter in this part of the book, “Character versus bad behavior” (chapter 8), starts with the question ‘Do sports build character?’. Justifications for school sport are based in large part on assumed character-building benefits. However, Overman focuses some issues that contradict this: hypermasculinity, hypercompetitiveness, hazing, drug use, and athlete misbehavior. Overman doesn’t say bad behavior is prominent in all schools, but they are existing issues. Schools need to set rules for behavior on and off the field of play. “Athletes should not enjoy privileged status and be permitted to flout those rules” (p. 177).

Part 3: Zooming out

Chapter 9, “The corrupting influence or outside interests”, puts interscholastic sports in a bigger context. National recognition such as All Star games is one example. Commercialism is another that is present in high school sport, for instance because administrators need nontraditional sources of income, such as sponsorships and advertisements. Recruiting is also an outside interest that influence interscholastic sports – athletes are recruited to colleges sport programs. Overman argues that different outside interests have corrupted school sports, since they use schools as a means to meet their own ends. Chapter 10 presents “The case against tackle football”, as a way to question taken for granted assumptions on how and why some sports are legitimized despite grave safety concerns. In the 11th and final chapter, “The tail that wags the dog”, Overman summarizes the issues brought up in the previous chapters and proposes changes for interscholastic sports. The core of this change consists of a restoring of focus on academics,

Concluding reflections

Sports Crazy is a must-read for all staff in schools in the US, particularly the schools whose culture is heavily shaped by and dependent on (interscholastic) sports. Overman’s main message is that taken-for-granted assumptions need to be challenged, with reforms. As a researcher with a specific interest in school sport in Scandinavia, I argue this book as a whole is relevant and interesting for any student and researcher who study any form of school sport. Since I am not that familiar with the American educational system, some chapters of Sports Crazy are more comprehensive and difficult to fully understand, as chapters 1–3. In contrast the chapters in the second part on sports culture, the relationships between sport and academics, physical fitness, and character vs bad behavior are more general as they provide examples to discuss school sport in a wider global context. This is, in my opinion, the stronger part of the book. However, that does not make the other parts weaker, but they give more specific meaning to the American context. Still, countries that have in various extents similar design and organization of school sport as the US can learn from Sports Crazy and be aware of some directions of school sport/interscholastic competitive sport that would not be ideal to enhance or develop. One example is sports vs. academics, which is an important issue to balance for all schools that offer elite student athletes some kinds of extra-, co- or (in)curricular sport practice and development. Overman argues that “School cultures should not be dominated by sports. Rather, schools should be honoring scholars, not placing football players on a pedestal” (p. 114). One must not forget that Sports Crazy also brings up the positive impact of sport and physical activity. Overman is not in general negative to sport as part of American schools, but he criticizes how interscholastic (elite) sports dominate and sets the agenda for a nation’s educational priorities.

Copyright © Marie Larneby 2022



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