Do High School Sports Create or Reveal Character?

A paper published last month asks this question and, from the perspective of this high school XC coach, comes to a perhaps sobering conclusion: they find no correlation with high school sports participation and later life outcomes like attending college, higher wages, and labor force participation. On first thought this is exactly opposite of what I would expect.

It’s an even more interesting question that I initially thought after reading the paper.  High school sports participation has consistently risen for 25 years and now 56% of students participate in some type of sport.  This is good of course, but like anything else there are some costs.  Participation in sports necessarily takes time away from other pursuits (like homework or other academics) and the cost to high school is certainly not negligible.  There’s also a risk of injury in sports which is a cost that, because of research on football related concussions, is higher than we estimated a few years ago.

The paper points out that athletic programs are being dropped at an increasing rate – they estimate that 27% of high schools will have no athletic programs by 2020 which seems surprising to me.

Given the budget constraints at many high schools and the cost of athletic programs this seems like an important study.  Participation in high school sports is widely found to be correlated with good outcomes later in life, but is it causal or simply selection bias?  (That is, do kids that are already predisposed to good outcomes choose to participate in high school sports?) If you could find that high school sports cause better outcomes then that would be excellent evidence that the costs are worth it.

Interestingly that is not what this paper finds.  It finds that the effect is not causal and therefore most likely due to selection.  It does find, however, that men (and not women) are more likely to exercise regularly as adults when they participate in high school sports.  They are no less likely to be obese adults though.

As I read the paper I kept waiting for them to examine the effect of specific sports.  One theory I have (albeit maybe biased) is that all sports are not equal in determining later life outcomes.  Some high school sports have very little opportunity for continued participation as adults (football, baseball, field hockey, wrestling) while for others it’s very convenient and common for adults to participate (cross country, tennis, basketball). If it’s easier to participate as adults then it makes more sense to encourage kids to play those sports in high school.  It could also be possible that some sports are negatively correlated with exercising as adults.  What percent of regularly exercising adults are doing so by playing football?  An incredibly small number.

I’ve emailed the paper’s authors to see if they looked at the effects of specific sports on their examined outcomes.

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