17 REASONS WHY FOOTBALL
by Herb Childress
IS BETTER THAN HIGH SCHOOL
WE DEFINE SCHOOL AS A PLACE OF LEARNING. BUT AS
I attended all of the classes in the high school in which I was an observer
for a year, what I saw mostly and what the students told me about most frequently
was not learning at all but boredom. I saw kids talking in class, not listening
to the lectures, having conversations instead of working on their study
guides, putting their heads on their desks and tuning out. Teachers talked
about what a struggle it was to get their kids to turn their homework in
at all, much less on time. Students picked up enough information to pass
the test, did their work well enough to get the grade, and then forgot forever
whatever it can be said that they had learned.
We adults could look at this and call it yet another
moral problem. We could call kids lazy, and tell each other that they won't
put any effort into their work.We could call for more testing to tell us
that sure enough test scores are still declining. We could call for more
penalties when kids don't do well in class, more ways to coerce them into
doing their work. We could talk about going "back to basics,"
which is to say making school an even less appealing and more restrictive
place than it is now.
But as an ethnographer, I had the advantage of
hanging around with over a hundred of this school's students outside the
classroom, and I got to watch them do other things. For example, I spent
a Thursday through Saturday during February with Bill, a junior who had
good grades during his first two years of high school but who had lost interest
in school during the third year. I watched him not bother to study at all
for a French test, and fail it. I watched him skip a class, and watched
him play a computer game instead of writing his article for the school newspaper.
I watched him get busted in a couple of classes for tardies and talking.
But that same guy on that same weekend spent two hours running full out
in a soccer practice, and spent more hours than I can count playing hacky-sack
(and he taught me how to play acceptably well, no small achievement in itself).
He cooked a wonderful dinner at home one night, and worked five fast-paced
hours at his restaurant kitchen job the next night. He spent most of his
home time playing games invented by his little brother and sister, who loved
him. He spent two hours surfing on Friday and three more hours preparing
for another surfing trip on Sunday.
When I was with him in school, he was an archetypal
slacker but when I was with him outside the school, he was a person with
a lot of interests, things that he was dedicated to and good at doing. And
that pattern carried over to so many of the kids that I followed. I watched
other people operate computers and wash horses. I saw them playing video
games that had dozens of rules and literally hundreds of decisions to make
every minute, and I watched them play card games that I couldn't begin to
understand. I watched them drive four-wheel-drive trucks at insane speeds
on dirt roads, and watched them working on those trucks as well. I watched
them acting, opening their hearts in front of hundreds of people. I watched
them wrestling and playing the piano. I was privileged to see them doing
the things that they loved to do. The things that they put themselves into
without reserve. The things that they were damn good at. The students I
knew were a skilled bunch of people. So why didn't those skills and capabilities
and love show up more often in the classroom?
In the school that I lived within, I saw striking
and strikingly consistent differences between the desultory classrooms and
lively extracurricular activities. The same kids who were emotionally absent
in their classes came alive after school. We say, "If only she'd spend
as much time doing her algebra as she does on cheerleading..." with
the implication that kids blow off Algebra because they're immature. We
don't usually think to turn the question around and ask what it is about
the things they love that are worthy of their best effort. We don't usually
ask what it is about school that usually makes it unworthy of that kind
of devotion. But if we're interested in looking at places of joy, places
where kids lose track of how hard they're working because they're so involved
in the work, places where teenagers voluntarily learn a difficult skill,
football can give us some clues about how and why to do it in other areas
Let me give you 17 reasons why football is better
for learning than high school. I use football as my specific example not
because I love football; I use it because I hate football. It's been said
that football combines the two worst elements of American society: violence
and committee meetings. You can substitute "music" or "theater"
or "soccer" for "football" and everything I say will
stay the same; so when I say that football is better than school, what I
really mean is that even football is better than school.
- In football, teenagers are considered important
contributors rather than passive recipients.
This is extraordinarily rare in teenage
life, but central to both learning and to self-esteem. A football team
is framed around the abilities and preferences of the players; if there's
nobody who can throw the ball, but three big fast running backs and a strong
offensive line, the team isn't going to have an offense that dwells much
on passing. But the geometry class and every student in the geometry class
has to keep pace with the same state-ordained curriculum as every other
school, regardless of the skills and interests and abilities of the students.
Football players know that they, and nobody else, will get the job done.
Students know that they are considered empty minds, to be filled at a pace
and with a material to be determined by others.
- In football, teenagers are encouraged to excel.
By this, I don't mean performing up to someone's standards (which may already
be limited), but to go beyond anything they've
ever been asked to do before, to constantly improve. There is no such thing
as "good enough." We congratulate players on their improvements,
but we don't give them much time to be complacent we ask them to do even
more. In the classroom, we give them a test on polynomials, and the best
result they can get is to score high enough to never have to deal with
- In football, teenagers are honored.
Football players get extraordinary amounts of approval: award banquets,
letter jackets, banners around the campus, school festivals, team photos,
whole sections of the yearbook, newspaper coverage, trophies, regional
and even state recognition for the best. The whole community comes out
to see them. We put them on floats and have parades. That doesn't happen
for the consumer math class.
- In football, a player can let the team down.
Personal effort is linked to more than personal achievement: it means the
difference between making the team better or making it weaker, the difference
between making a player's teammates and coaches grateful for his presence
or irritated with his apathy. A single player can make his peers better
than they would have been without him. That's a huge incentive that we
take away from the classroom with our constant emphasis on individual outcomes.
In football, repetition is honorable.
In the curriculum, we continually move forward, with not much opportunity
to do things a second time and get better. Students have to do new things
every time they get to class. In football, students do the same drills
over and over all season long, and in fact get better at them. The skills
get easier, and players start to use those skills to do things that are
- In football, the unexpected happens all the
Every player will line up across from
the same opposing player dozens of times during a game, but he knows that
each time, his opponent could do something different and he'll have to
react to it right in the moment. There's no opportunity to coast, to glaze
out, to sit back and watch others work. Every player is required to be
involved and absorbed in his work, and a talented player who holds back
is typically regarded more poorly than his less talented but more engaged
teammates. Contrast that with a normal class period, scripted out by a
teacher with the idea that a successful class is the one that goes as planned
with the fewest disruptions, and it's clear why apathy can be a problem
in the classroom.
- In football, practices generally run a lot
longer than 50 minutes.
And when they end, there's a reason to stop: everyone works until they
get it right, or until they're too tired to move anymore. There's no specific
reason that a school class should run for 50 minutes instead of 35 or 85,
and there's no reason why class should run the same length of time every
day. The classroom schedule responds to pressures that come from outside
the classroom state laws, other classes, even bus schedules. Football practice
schedule is more internal they quit when they're done.
- In football, the homework is of a different
type than what's done at practice.
In the classroom, kids do worksheets in
class and then very often take the same kind of worksheet home to finish
it. Football requires a lot of homework that comes in the form of running
and weight training, things not done at practice. Players work at home
to find and build their strengths, and then bring those strengths to practice
to work together on specific skills. The work done at home and the work
done in common are two different jobs, and each is incomplete without the
- In football, emotions and human contact are
expected parts of the work.
When players do well, they get to be happy.
When they do poorly, they get to be angry. Players are supposed to talk
with each other while things are going on. But we have no tools to make
use of happiness or frustration in most classrooms, and we generally prohibit
communication except for the most rote exchanges. When we bring 30 kids
together and ask them not to communicate, not to use each another as resources
and exhort each other to go farther, then we make it clear to them that
their gathering is simply a cost-effectiveness measure.
- In football, players get to choose their own
Not only do they choose their sport, they also choose their favored position
within that sport. In the classroom, we don't allow people to follow their
hearts very often. We give them a list of classes they have to take, and
then we give them assignments within those classes that they have to do,
and we don't offer many alternatives. We've set the whole school thing
up as a set of requirements, but sports are a set of opportunities, a set
of pleasures from which anyone gets to choose. Each one of those pleasures
carries with it a set of requirements and responsibilities and difficult
learning assignments, but kids still do them voluntarily, following their
own self- defined mission of seeking their place in the world.
- In football, the better players teach the
Sometimes this is on purpose, but mostly this teaching is by example. Every
player is constantly surrounded by other players who can do things well,
and who love doing what they do. The really good players are allowed to
show off in fact, it's demanded that they show off, that they work to their
highest capacity. The people who aren't as good see that. Not only do they
simply see skills they can learn, they often get swept up in it emotionally.
They get to see another person not just the teacher but a friend who knows
what they're doing and who loves to do it. In the classroom, the best students
aren't often given a chance to publicly go beyond what everyone else is
doing. They're smothered, held back, kept in pace.
- In football, there is a lot of individual
instruction and encouragement from adults.
A coach who has only the nine defensive
linemen to deal with for an hour is going to get a pretty good sense of
who these kids are, what drives them, what they can and can't do. And those
players are going to see the coach in a less formal and more human frame;
they get to ask questions when questions arise without feeling as though
they're on stage in front of 30 other bored students.
Let's admit a basic truth: bigger class size makes personal contact more
difficult. The school I was in had an average class size of about 27 students.
That was considered pretty good, since the statewide average was about
31. But as I looked around the halls at the sports team photos in their
glass trophy cases, the highest player-to-coach ratio I saw was 13 to 1;
sometimes it was better than 10 to 1. There was one photo of the varsity
football team with Coach Phillips and his three assistants surrounded by
his 35 players; erase the three assistants from the picture, and you could
have had a photo of any one of his history classes.
On the first day of freshman basketball practice, 23 kids tried out, and
by the end of the first week, there were still 17. On the next Monday morning
the coach said to me, "I sure hope some more of these kids quit. You
can't do anything with 17 kids." True enough why do we make him do
it five periods a day with 25, 30, or 34 kids?
- In football, the adults who participate are
The adults involved in football are more than willing to tell you that
they love to play, that they love to coach. And they don't say it in words
so much as they say it in their actions, in the way that they hold themselves
and dive in to correct problems and give praise. But the teachers I watched
(and the teachers I had from grade school to grad school) were, for the
most part, embarrassed to death to say that they loved whatever it is that
they did. It takes a lot of guts to stand up in front of 25 kids who didn't
volunteer to be there and say, "You know, dissecting this pig is going
to be the most fun I'm going to have all day." We're candidates for
the Geek-of-the-Month Club if we let people know that we really love poetry,
or trigonometry, or theater, or invertebrate biology. And so we often hide
behind a curriculum plan, a textbook and a set of handouts, and we say,
"You and I have to do this together because it's what the book says
we have to do." We armor ourselves in the appearance of not caring,
so that we won't be hurt when they don't care either. But only in those
few classrooms where the teachers said, both in word and in action, that
they absolutely loved what they were doing those were the classrooms where
the kids were engaged, where they learned.
I talked with a lot of kids and their teachers and their parents about
what they loved to do, whether that was photography or surfing or hunting
or reading, things that are real skills. And when I asked how they got
involved in those activities, both the kids and the adults always answered
that it was someone that got them interested, and not anything intrinsic
in the event itself. They followed someone they respected into an activity
that that person loved, and they discovered it from there.
- In football, volunteers from the community
are sought after.
No sports program in a high school could ever operate without assistant
coaches, trainers, and other local people who aren't paid to help out.
These guys give hours and hours to the school in exchange for a handshake,
a vinyl jacket and a dinner at the end of the season. Volunteers become
a natural part of human activity. There are almost never volunteers in
the classroom, no adult who seems to believe that math or chemistry is
so interesting that she or he would do it for free on a regular basis.
There's no sense that anyone other than "the expert" can contribute
to a discussion of ideas.
- In football, ability isn't age-linked.
Freshmen who excel can play for the varsity. In the ninth-grade English
classroom, an extraordinary student can't go beyond what the other ninth-grade
students are doing, even if he or she could profit from what's being assigned
to the seniors. When a student tries out for football, he gets a good looking
over by several coaches, and if he's really good, they're going to move
him up fast. In the classroom, if that same student is really good if he's
inspired one person sees it and gives him an A. Big deal it's the same
A that someone else gets for just doing the requirements without that inspiration.
The pace of advancement in football isn't linked to equal advancement in
another irrelevant area. If a kid is an adequate JV basketball player but
an extraordinary football player, the football coach isn't going to say
that he has to stay with the JV football team so that he's consistent with
his grade level. No way the coach is going to tell that player, "come
on up here, we need you." Have you ever heard an English teacher recruit
a young student by saying, "we need you in this classroom?" Have
you ever heard a science teacher say that "Your presence is crucial
to how this course operates. We're not at our full potential without you?"
- In football, there's a whole job to do at
Players practice specific moves over and over in isolation, but they know
that their job at the end is going to mean doing it all together in a way
that's more than the sum of the parts. In school, we keep the parts separate.
We don't show our students how a creative writer might use a knowledge
of science; we don't show them how a historian might want to know about
the building trades; we don't show them how a mechanic can take joy in
knowing about American history. We don't let our students see the way that
all of these different interests might come together into a worthwhile
and fascinating life. We pretend they're all separate.
- In football, a public performance is expected.