Do Varsity Sports Pose a Barrier to Tackling Obesity?

Personally, despite all of its known health benefits, I do not believe that a focus on physical activity alone will do much to prevent or reverse the obesity problem.

I do however, very much favour the idea, that everyone – male or female, young or old, skinny or fat – should engage in more physical activity for the sake of better mental and physical health.

I also very much support the positive influence that physical education (PE) in the school environment can have on kids – even if it were only to improve their school performance and perhaps lay a foundation for future activities.

Interestingly enough, however, an article by Amis and colleagues from the University of Memphis, TN, published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that one of the major barriers (among many others) to increasing physical education in schools may in fact be varsity sports.

The researchers examined the implementation and outcomes of three new state-level, school-oriented childhood obesity policies enacted between 2004 and 2007 in 8 high schools in Mississippi and Tennessee.

Data included interviews with policymakers, administrators, teachers, and students, observations of school-based activities, and available documents.

Two major barriers were identified to the implementation of these policies: a value system that prioritizes performances in standardized tests and a varsity sport system that negatively influences opportunities for physical activity.

While the former barrier (focus on academic performance testing, reinforced through the ‘No Child Left Behind Policy’) was not all that surprising, the second barrier certainly is worth dissecting further.

As the authors note:

“The prevalence and profile of high-school varsity sport, particularly football and basketball, is well recognized across the United States. Less well documented are the effects that varsity sport has on the operation of schools. We found several ways in which the predominance of varsity sport negatively affected the provision of PE in general, and the implementation of the new obesity-related policies in particular.”

Specific finding in this regarded included prioritization of space and scheduling and reservation of the best and newest equipment for varsity athletes, with the vast majority of students not having access to these resources for PE.

“The prioritization of varsity sport over PE was well known within the schools in our study, as a classroom teacher from Gold Coast explained, “When we say PE, we mean basketball. . . . Having a good basketball team is important; PE is not.” Such a position was generally not seen as problematic, and was justified by the principal at Smith: I don’t care what anybody says, when you win [at] football, it sets the precedence [sic] for your students’ spirit and school pride and things like that, and that carries over into how they perform in the classroom.”

In virtually all schools, the majority of PE staff also coached varsity teams and in many cases, varsity coaches were called on to fill PE teaching vacancies. In fact, “PE teachers” were commonly and openly hired for their varsity coaching skills rather than for PE teaching skills.

Not surprisingly,

“…most PE teachers in our study exhibited behaviors that suggested that they were more interested in improving the perfor- mance of their varsity teams than in increasing levels of physical activity across the student body.”

This interest (or rather disinterest) of PE staff was also reflected in the curriculum that were offered:

“…prioritization of varsity sport over PE was reflected in the provision of PE curricula that were not diverse enough to appeal to a broad swath of students…Indeed, PE class was often viewed as a way to get extra training for varsity athletes. Girls seemed particularly disadvantaged by this, with complaints about the PE curriculum widespread in our student focus groups, exemplified by this quote from Demetra, a student at Adams: “I really don’t like [PE] . . . we don’t really play anything but basketball, and I don’t know how to play basketball, so I just sit in the stands, and walk sometimes.”

Thus, the researchers found that varsity sports had a profound negative effect on physical education of the student body both by prioritization of facility use by varsity athletes as well as a focus of PE teachers on improving athletic prowess and skills in varsity type activities (football, basketball, etc.) rather than in mass-participation activities.

It is therefore by no means surprising that the researchers come to the conclusion that:

“…the prospect of using PE to raise activity levels is unlikely unless PE teachers see their primary roles as rounded physical educators rather than as varsity coaches.”

While this may have little consequences when it comes to the issue of preventing or reducing obesity, its consequences for population health are profound, especially if the consequences of varsity sports are to deny meaningful physical education to the vast majority of students.

I cannot help but wonder, if along with calling for the removal of pop machines and junk food from schools it is also time to begin calling for the elimination of varsity sports from those same institutions.

Oh, but then again, perhaps without the ample revenues from the former, it may simply be a matter of time before the latter problem takes care of itself.

I would certainly love to hear from readers regarding their experiences with varsity sports programs and how such programs may have affected their own or their kids’ activities.

Edmonton, Alberta

ResearchBlogging.orgAmis JM, Wright PM, Dyson B, Vardaman JM, & Ferry H (2012). Implementing Childhood Obesity Policy in a New Educational Environment: The Cases of Mississippi and Tennessee. American journal of public health PMID: 22420819