Though economically they might not be the best business in town, high school sports help prepare young people for the future.
| 2017 Q3 | story by Craig Leener, photos by Steven Hertzog
Imagine for a moment you had the task of presenting a proposal to a venture capital (VC) group for the business of running the combined 56 individual sports programs that make up high school athletics in Lawrence.
On the plus side of the ledger, there would be line-item funding from the district office, fees collected from student activity tickets, modest gate receipts, concessions, well-meaning grassroots fundraisers and intermittent monetary donations from parents.
In the minus column, you would find uniform and equipment expenditures; field, gymnasium and swimming pool operating expenses; transportation costs; and wages for an array of coaches, referees, medical personnel, teachers, guidance counselors, custodians and administrators.
The likely response from the VC organization’s board of directors? “Don’t let the door hit you in the wallet on the way out, and we don’t validate parking.”
Here’s the bottom line reality check: If Lawrence’s high school sports programs were run like small businesses, they would surely fail.
But, thankfully, there’s a third column in the equation. It’s the collection of intangible, difficult-to-measure benefits that are derived by students, parents, educational institutions and the local community. It’s an enterprise where everyone in this city of 90,000 people is a shareholder.
“As the students benefit, so, too, do parents and the community,” Free State High School athletic director Mike Hill says.
With 1,800 students, Free State High is the city’s largest public high school. The school was built in 1997 in response to overcrowding at now-rival Lawrence High School.
On a historical note, the school’s name originated from the term “Free State,” which referred to a U.S. state without slavery. Free-staters were settlers in the 1850s who successfully opposed the expansion of slavery into Kansas and did not want the state admitted to the Union as a slave state. Kansas became the 34th state in 1861.
“We provide a venue for kids to grow,” says 48-year-old Hill, a lifelong resident of Lawrence who just completed his 20th season as the school’s head baseball coach. “That is a direct benefit to their parents and the community, whether you consider that from an economic perspective, meaning better workers and more consumers, or from the perspective of a more educated populace.”
The Free State Firebirds compete in the Sunflower League and have notched 11 state championships. Hill believes that education-based athletics at Free State High provide an avenue for kids to have fun and create memories.
“Everyone, parents, the community at-large and, most importantly, the kids themselves benefit from that,” he says.
The city’s other public high school is Lawrence High. Established in 1857, when classes were originally held in the basement of a Unitarian church, the school is now home to 1,600 students.
Lawrence High athletics programs have won over 100 state championships, more than any other high school in the state and one of the highest totals in the nation.
The school collected its first state championship in 1914. The sport? What else—boys basketball. The Lawrence High faithful would argue it’s no coincidence the school’s basketball gym is a mere mile from Allen Fieldhouse, on the campus of the University of Kansas.
Notable Lawrence High graduates include philanthropist and Booth Family Hall of Athletics founder David Booth, environmental activist Erin Brockovich and Danny Manning, who led KU’s basketball team to the NCAA title in 1988.
Bill DeWitt is entering his fifth year as Lawrence High’s athletic director and assistant principal.
DeWitt, 44, says the Chesty Lions compete in 22 sports programs within the Sunflower League, two fewer than Free State High. He says monetarily, the benefits are a blip on the overall school budget, as proceeds are put back into the programs for officials, entry fees and operating expenses.
DeWitt believes in the importance of student-athletes having the humility to lend their talents to a sport where they may not be the star but can play a role in helping others who might be.
“Educationally, the benefits are immeasurable, and lessons learned carry over into life experiences,” DeWitt says. “Learning how to win with excellence and lose with excellence are skills that are horribly lacking in society today. We try to run our programs with a philosophy that when we visit other schools, we play in a way that people respond by saying, “Look at those kids at LHS—good things must happen there.”
Excellent stuff is also happening at Bishop Seabury Academy, a private, Episcopal middle school and high school with a total population of 210 students, 110 of whom are in grades 9 through 12. The school is named after Samuel Seabury, first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and a British Loyalist during the American Revolution.
Bishop Seabury student-athlete Chris Green is a shooting guard on the basketball team. He also competes in soccer in the fall and golf in the spring.
“For my teammates and me, team sports is about building chemistry and learning how to cooperate with each other as we work toward a common goal,” the 17-year-old junior says.
Eric Nelson, 52, has been Bishop Seabury’s athletic director for nine years. Unlike Hill and DeWitt, who both grew up in Kansas, Nelson found his way to Lawrence by way of Arizona, Colorado, Washington and the U.S. island territory of Guam in the Western Pacific. He then retraced his steps back to Colorado and Washington before setting deep roots in the Sunflower State.
Nelson says the cornerstones of Bishop Seabury’s athletics program are working collectively to achieve a goal, striving for excellence and pushing beyond perceived limits and barriers.
“All of these phenomena are life success skills that any employer would desire,” he says.
Nelson believes athletics make the educational experience more personal by shrinking the school down, where deeper friendships can develop. He knows firsthand because he is the parent of two student-athletes at the school.
“It’s meaningful to see my own children competing, learning and having fun in their sports,” Nelson says. “And the sports programs give the school’s parents a chance to bond, as well. It is a fun social event to go to a game and sit with the other parents. Without these opportunities, they may never cross paths.”
Seabury also offers a unique opportunity to its student-athletes: It does not cut players in any sport. That means many kids get the opportunity to compete in sports that they are not committed to year-round. That doesn’t happen at the two larger high schools, where the number of roster spots on the varsity basketball team, for example, is finite at 12 players. And, in a college town where the sport of basketball is king, the school offers the chance for any aspiring round-baller to compete.
“Seabury adds opportunity for an additional number of kids, in many cases allowing a student to have a career who may not be able to compete for a 1,600-student high school,” Nelson says. “The school is perfect for the academic kid who also is competitive.”
It’s one thing to get an administrator’s take on the power and value of the high school athletic experience. It’s quite another to hear it directly from a student-athlete who must strike a daily balance between his academic obligations and the needs of his team.
But before you do, imagine again for a moment that the same student-athlete is one day working alongside you at the bank, the hospital, the car dealership or the university.
“I’m working hard everyday trying to be a good leader for my teammates,” says 18-year-old Simon McCaffrey, senior point guard for the Free State High basketball team. “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got everyone’s back.”
McCaffrey’s viewpoint is grounded in the essence of what high school sports programs are all about. It is the aforementioned intangible, difficult-to-measure benefits that boil down to one word—teamwork.
Regardless of whether a student is the star quarterback, a third-string midfielder, a bruised and battered volleyball middle blocker, the assistant manager of the JV tennis team or simply a shy freshman sweeping up chalk dust after gymnastics practice, the takeaway is the same.
High school team sports equip young people for the future by enabling them to carve out their own unique role in something greater than themselves.