LAWRENCE — The stereotype of the dumb jock has been around almost as long as sport itself. On the opposite sideline there are coaches, teachers and athletes who would argue that high school sports are as beneficial to students in the classroom as they are on the field of play. A new study from the University of Kansas that analyzed academic performance of athletes and nonathletes across Kansas shows that participation in interscholastic athletics is often associated with better educational outcomes.
Angela Lumpkin, professor of health, sport and exercise sciences, and Rebecca Achen, doctoral candidate and graduate teaching assistant at KU, show that athletes had higher percentages of days of school attended, graduation rates, and Kansas assessment scores and lower dropout rates than nonathletes. They analyzed data for students in grades nine through 12 for the 2011-12 school year in schools throughout the state.
Kansas has a policy that to be eligible to compete in sports, students must pass at least five credit hours per semester. Lumpkin cites the policy as a reason many students persist in their academic work.
“In general, an athlete is not smarter than a nonathlete,” Lumpkin said. “But I would argue, and I think our evidence suggests, that just having such a policy shows the student they need to take their studies seriously if they want to compete.”
Lumpkin, a former college basketball coach, and Achen, a former high school athlete and junior high coach, analyzed data from the Kansas State High School Activities Association, National Federation of State High School and Kansas State Department of Education.
The results have a number of implications regarding high school athletics, educational funding and policy. School districts regularly face tight budgets that force decisions on where funding should be cut. Evidence that participating in sports can help student performance may be cited as a factor in continuing to fund them, Lumpkin said, and convince policy makers that money spent on athletics is justified. The results could also be used as an argument for improving students’ futures.
Students who complete high school have much higher economic potential than those who drop out. Conversely, those who drop out are more likely to live in poverty, face substance abuse and numerous other social problems, Lumpkin said.
Reiterating that athletic competition does not make a student smarter, the authors argue that the lessons learned in athletics, combined with the knowledge that they must do well in school to participate, improves students’ persistence and chances for success.
“What we are saying is participation is important. Whether it’s learning time management or handling expectations from someone in their life like coaches, teammates or family members, athletes are learning discipline,” Lumpkin said.
The study compared academic performance of athletes and non-athletes between boys and girls and between white and minority students. In each measure athletes had higher academic performance than nonathletes.
“For the most part there were significant differences among the athlete and nonathlete populations,” Achen said. “It showed to be true among all groups analyzed that being an athlete helped them persist.”
The study did not consider how culture might affect whether a student took part in athletics and also did not break down which sports the students took part in. The majority of Kansas schools are small enough that there is not “specialization,” and students play multiple sports. The results cannot be assumed to be the same in all states as policies regarding athletics and demographics vary greatly. It is reasonable to presume, however, that interscholastic athletics have academic benefits in other states, the authors said, and they hope that others will conduct similar studies across the nation.
“Involvement in interscholastic sports has a positive impact on high school students as suggested by previous research and corroborated by this study. As such, participation should be encouraged, especially for high-risk populations, and specifically for minority students,” Lumpkin and Achen wrote. “The potential for sport participation to improve graduation rates, keep students in school longer and increase daily attendance should lead administrators to adamantly support interscholastic sport.”