Is there anything good happening in high school sports? As an athletic director, this is a question for which I try to have a good answer. Frequently, the reported news is not helpful. I am an advocate for education-based athletics. The court, field or ice rink is an extension of the classroom. This is the test track to see whether or not what we teach within our school walls has an impact in the reality of the world outside.
Athletic directors ought to be vigilant in constantly seeking opportunities to reinforce the positive impact of education-based athletics. Frequently, we find our work focused on grades, eligibility and participation. Those are good things, but if our focus is only there, it may prevent us from seeing other less-tangible experiences.
There are countless opportunities to expose our athletes to character-developing experiences. These experiences can allow us to pinpoint principles of character that we desire all of our athletes to embrace, and our position allows us to set the table for student-athletes. That includes steps of progress — academically, physically and socially. This intentional effort — in concert with our coaches — to create these opportunities can make for a very powerful student-athlete experience. I had the privilege of witnessing an example of this recently at a football game between Ashland High School and Minneapolis North Community High School.
It takes very little observation to acknowledge that our culture is struggling with divisiveness, anger and tension. In our schools we make a great effort to teach our students that these negatives need not be part of their lives. Frequently, the student does not have the opportunity to experience or practice something positive when he or she leaves school grounds. As educators, it is necessary for us to create those opportunities in which students can practice the language and teaching of the classroom.
September 16, 2016, was such a night for two schools. Filling out a football schedule for a medium-size, rural northern Wisconsin school on the shores of Lake Superior is a difficult task. As I searched for an opponent for our open week, the only prospect I could find was Minneapolis North Community High School. I contacted North's athletic director, Dr. Leo Lewis, and proposed a game with our Ashland Oredockers. After discussions with the coaches, we agreed to play.
But where? The Polars needed a home game and so did the Oredockers. So we agreed to meet halfway. Cameron, a small northwest Wisconsin town with a recently opened football stadium — 100 miles from each school — hosted the game.
I had no previous connection with Lewis nor with Minneapolis Public School director of athletics Trent Tucker, but I quickly came to admire their preparation skills and obvious care for their student-athletes. Planning for the pregame and game was in place, and we also agreed to a meal together afterward.
When gameday arrived, fan buses from both schools converged on Cameron, and to the delight of the Polar faithful, North won the game. But the final score will one day be forgotten. What followed had a profound impact on many young athletes.
The players came together in a lunchroom, devoured pizza, cookies and Gatorade and showed one another that different kids from an 8,200-person rural town in Wisconsin and those from the nation's 14th-largest metropolitan district really are not that different. While the coaches visited, the players started an arm wrestling tournament that inspired cheers and whoops of delight for more than an hour. Video and photos were shared on social media as the kids enjoyed getting to know one another.
Education-based athletics and high school sports are an extension of the classroom. Classroom discussion and theory fleshed out in a small lunchroom in a small northern Wisconsin town. Kids from very different backgrounds sharing what they have in common: the desire to compete, the desire to get along and the desire for a good slice of pizza.
Is anything good happening in high school sports? You bet there is.
Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the September 23, 2016, edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
This article originally appeared in the November | December 2016 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Finding the good in high school sports." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.