Not For Sale – School Playing Fields (in The US)

John Kohutanycz, a sports teacher at a high school with vast playing fields so large that he needs a golf cart to get around them, expresses incredulity at the notion of school playing fields being sold. "I have never heard of anything like that here, ever. Wow. That’s scary," he exclaims. This is in reference to the controversial practice of selling school playing fields which caused storms of protest in the UK over the summer. This came after restrictions on such sales were lifted right when Britain was getting all the Olympic glory and debating how to capitalise on it.

School sports are taken so seriously in America. It is a vital part of a chain that starts with children playing sports as young as four years old and ends with industries where the top ten American football teams are worth a combined total of $12 billion (£8 billion). The Los Angeles Lakers basketball team earns $200 million a year in TV rights. The US clinched the top spot in the medals ranking at the London Olympics, taking 46 gold medals.

"Sport is like a religion here, and it drives everything from the local community all the way through schools and colleges to state government in some parts of the country," says sports psychology expert and neuroscientist Prof Bruce Svare of the State University of New York. "And the culture is about winning."

In New Jersey, Kohutanycz gives the Guardian a tour of his school’s $1.5 million synthetic-turf American football field, featuring a six-lane running track and stands capable of accommodating 2,500 spectators. As he whizzes the golf cart past the hockey pitch, baseball diamond, two soccer pitches, marching band practice field, and two other American football fields, he gives a glimpse of the impressive facilities that come standard for an average American high school. Sayreville War Memorial high school in suburban New Jersey has 1,700 pupils aged from around 15 to 18 and is in an average socio-economic area with an ethnic mix and a range of income that locals describe as a melting pot. There are thousands of public-sector schools much wealthier than this one, including those that have their own 60,000-seat American football stadiums.

Above the main pitch in the stands is a press box. That schools require press boxes to accommodate media interest in their matches may come as a surprise, but in America, this is routine. The local radio station, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, and Sayreville’s two local papers, as well as several websites, report on Memorial’s fixtures across several sports. Crunch matches are televised live on a regional cable network. And many residents of Sayreville, which has a population of 43,000, turn out to watch. "The town’s incredibly supportive," says Kohutanycz. "And our sports stars are ambassadors for the town. It’s a huge source of community pride."

Local residents are financially invested in it, as well as emotionally. In the US, the community levies property taxes, and the bulk of public-sector school funding comes from this, and the school budget is passed or blocked by local referendum. Specific tax increases are proposed for special capital projects such as a new classroom block or athletics track.

The disparities can be dramatic, as many schools in the inner cities or rural locations where revenue from property taxes may be lower find themselves struggling for the basics. Nevertheless, US average schools compete proudly to hold sports facilities that British comprehensive schools would find impressive. Even for schools with budget troubles, selling off playing fields never seems to be on the agenda, despite the fact that there are no bans on it, and no rules specify the size of the playing fields per school.

The lure of sporting glory, inextricably linked to fame and fortune, is deeply ingrained. However, each child has the opportunity to use these facilities in school PE. Sports in US schools do not become competitive until the age of 10. The community club system gets children on an early competitive track. It is a comprehensive national network of sports teams run by local authorities. Children sign up and pay a fee, or they are often subsidised. They start playing touch-football (American football), unisex soccer, baseball, softball, running, basketball, swimming, gym, or a host of other sports from the age of four or five. From there, they are funnelled into a highly competitive system with coaches, right up to a level where national championships are held by the age of eight or nine.

Clubs are funded through a combination of public money, parents’ pockets, commercial sponsorship, and community fundraising.

Svare acknowledges a negative aspect in the world of American sports. Children tend to focus on one sport too early, parents become pushy, and college athletic scholarships and professional contracts are emphasized, leading to alarming levels of injuries, steroid use, and burnout. Critics argue that the pressure on investing in winners leads to neglecting other children, many of whom join the third of American children that are disturbingly obese.

Nevertheless, the benefits of being a successful athlete outweigh the drawbacks. The world’s highest-paid sportsmen are American players, and a professional footballer’s salary begins at $250,000 per annum. Many American Olympic champions are “set for life” due to commercial endorsements. Britain, which came third in gold medals for the 2012 Olympics, had many medalists who attended private schools, as England’s state schools are selling off playing fields due to tightened budgets and minimized time allocated for Physical Education.

The Paralympics, in contrast, did not receive equal priority. Despite nearly complete coverage of the Olympics, NBC TV only aired five hours of the Paralympics and none of it was live, prompting criticism from America’s disabled athletes.

Pre-season training for American high school sports teams starts two to four weeks before the end of summer holidays. This was observed at Memorial, Franklin, and other US schools, where teenage boys and girls train for three to five hours, four to five days each week. Samantha Balbierz, 17, and her team mate Taylor, 16, are members of Franklin’s girls’ soccer team and have been offered athletic scholarships for college sports.

Franklin boasts a range of sports facilities, and Kimberly Kenny, the head of sports at the school, says sport and academic success are interlinked and teach students about time management, working with others, handling pressure, and winning and losing gracefully. Franklin is currently planning a fundraising campaign to supplement public funding and expand its central sports field facilities. The school head believes sports facilities are just as significant as science labs or mathematics blocks.


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    Axel Lancaster is a 53-year-old blogger who specializes in education-related topics. He has been blogging for over a decade and has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with his readers. Axel is a highly respected authority on the subject of education and is regularly quoted in the media. He is also a sought-after speaker and has given presentations at numerous conferences and events.