September 20, 2021

Math v. March Madness

June 7, 2011 by · 6 Comments 

On July 27, 1975, a child was born in Washington Heights, New York. Four years later, his family moved to the Dominican Republic, and soon after to Miami, Florida. He grew up rooting for the New York Mets, and idolized Cal Ripken and Keith Hernandez. Like most children, he dreamed about becoming a professional athlete.

A little over a decade later, he took his dream to the next level. He became a star short stop for Westminster Christian High School in Miami. He batted .419 with 90 stolen bases in his high school career, and won the high school national championship in his junior year. With his .505 batting average as a senior, he was an All-American. In 1993, he became the first high school player to ever try out for Team USA. He was regarded as the top prospect in the country.

College then stared this highly touted prospect in the face. He turned down a baseball scholarship to the University of Miami and never went on to play college baseball. At age 17, he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. He never saw a college classroom.

A few years later, he was known as A-Rod.

By age 20, Alex Rodriguez was already making his first All-Star appearance. His combination of speed and power widened eyes all across the country. He was headed for big things.

He spent seven years with the Mariners and three with the Texas Rangers. At age 28, he was traded to the New York Yankees, with an astonishing 345 career home runs. On December 13, 2007, he signed a ten-year, $275 million contract, making him the highest paid player in Major League Baseball history. For a New York boy without a bachelor’s degree, Alex was doing pretty well.

* * *

While the record-breaking contract that paid Alex Rodriguez $32 million in 2010 certainly raises a few eyebrows, it also uncovers a very difficult—and to some, frustrating— question: how can Alex Rodriguez, a man with only a high school education, make over $25 million a year while over two-million Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher can’t even find a job?

The answer is nothing simple and cannot be answered with any quantitative data. Rather, the answer lies deep in our understanding of American society: our values and our motives; what we say versus what we do.

It would be easy to sit and crunch the numbers: in the last 28 years, high school drop out rates have dropped over six percent; United States spending on education has steadily increased over the past few decades. It all seems relatively positive. But hidden beneath those numbers is a nation performing well below it’s potential.

Finding the roadblock in American education is something difficult to pinpoint. One could accurately point to, for example, the hiccuping global economy. But to say that would be to neglect the core issue: the values we promote.

Undoubtedly, one cannot discuss American values without mentioning sports. Prime-time national television is often reserved for sporting events; the “American pastime” is baseball; every boy growing up dreams of being the next Derek Jeter. Without question, sports plays an immense role in American culture. But how does that affect education? Do these dreams hinder the development of children? Why do kids favor Derek Jeter over their third grade teacher?

First, let’s contrast American culture against that of another nation where schools are a top priority. That way, we can isolate the problem and identify it in our own culture.

For arguments sake, let’s take China. According to Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, writing under the title “Where China Outpaces America,” children in Shanghai, China, enjoy a “world-class education.” In a study of the 65 top performing nations in education, Shanghai came out on top. The United States, on the other hand, came in 15th place in reading, 23rd place in science, and 31st in math.

Shanghai is not the only country at the top of the list who follows the Confucian legacy of respect for education. Appearing in the next top four spots were Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore. Clearly, these countries share a common set of values that nurture a prosperous academic outcome. But what is it?

Kristof writes in his column, “China’s Winning Schools?”:

Education thrives in China and the rest of Asia because it is a top priority, and we’ve plenty to learn from that.


The larger issue is that the greatest strength of the Chinese system is the Confucian reverence for education that is steeped into the culture. In Chinese schools, teachers are much respected, and the most admired kid is often the brain rather than the jock or class clown.

Kristof hits on two key points: the role of culture in education and the issue of priorities. He suggests that, in the United States, education is not valued high enough, and that is to blame for America’s mediocre academic performance. To close his piece, Kristof calls for Americans to “elevate education on our list of priorities.” Furthermore, Kristof writes that Americans tend to favor the “jock” over the “brain,” while Chinese culture admires those who excel academically.

Those two factors—the priority of education and an academically geared culture—are what separate the United States and China: the “greatest strength” of the Chinese system, as Kristof puts it. The United States’ failure to display these values is, therefore, it’s greatest weakness. Our tendency to look over those who get straight A’s while rewarding those who hit a home run is what leaves the United States well below the standards of Chinese education. As Kristof notes in “China’s Winning Schools,” “peasant children are a grade ahead in math compared with my children at an excellent public school in the New York area.”

Clearly, the effects of a vastly different culture are illustrated in academic performance. And, as Kristof suggests, sports are a defining factor in the differences between American and Chinese culture, and that claim is easily supported.

For example, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), the preeminent professional basketball league in China, has a maximum salary cap for players set at $44,000 a year, or five times the average income in China according to the International Monetary Fund. America’s National Basketball Association, on the other hand, has a minimum salary of $490,180 per year, over 11 times the maximum salary in the CBA, and 10 times the average income in the United States.

If American culture so strongly favors sports, what does it look like? What aspects of our society display this preference?

The clearest indication of our sport-obsessed culture is at the professional level. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League brought in a combined $22.5 billion in revenue this past season. That is nearly double what the national government spends on it’s College- and Career-Ready Students program that prepares students, rewards success, and turns around low-performing schools.

That the United States spends less on a program that promotes academic success than the four major sports leagues earn each year accurately indicates the inverted priorities of American culture. In fact, the Super Bowl holds the spot as the most-watched television event in United States history. Why doesn’t the History channel get the same attention?

American sports does not only take on a role at the professional level, but also at the high school level. High school sports have been extremely popular in the United States for decades, and have, to some degree, affected education. The problem with high school sports is that it takes place as close to the athletes education as possible: the practice facilities are usually on school grounds; the team they play for is directly affiliated with the school; practice takes place right after classes.

The obvious approach to finding the effects of high school sports would be to question the time management of the athletes: how can a student juggle both homework and practice? That argument, while certainly relevant, is very difficult to quantify, and not necessarily indicative of national values and priorities. However, by revealing the values promoted by high school sports foundations, we are given a clear picture of the problems with high school sports, and a rational solution to untangle our values.

New York City’s high school sports foundation, the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), sets very low standards for student-athletes. The PSAL Student-Athlete Eligibility Rules and Regulations states that student-athletes “must pass four credit bearing subjects (not four credits) and physical education.” It adds that “at least two of the four subjects passed must be major subjects (English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Foreign Language or Science).” In other words, a student can take Art, Music, English, and Social Studies, receive four D’s, and still be allowed to participate in high school sports.

If the United States cares at all about educating it’s youth, those are shockingly low standards. We are sending the message that it is okay to excel in sports at the expense of your education. High school students in New York City are given zero direction: just pass the minimum amount of courses and we will support you’re athletic goals; hit a few home runs and we will look past your English grade. The student who sits at home and studies for his history final, on the other hand, doesn’t hear any cheers from the crowds.

Fortunately, these are easy standards to improve upon. What would happen is we required high school athletes to maintain at least a C average? Or even a B average? While intelligence and academic performance may not immediately improve, it would completely turn around our values. Sports would now be viewed as a privilege, not a guarantee with minimal academic requirements. Not only would there be an incentive to succeed, but also future generations would grow up in a country that supports completely separate values. For once, we would ask something of our youth.

The most influential—and arguably, corrupt—manifestation of our values exists in college sports. College sports is the paramount desire of many high school athletes, primarily because of how easy it is to relate to college athletes. College athletes “with their professional-level fame” are just a few years older than high school students, and thus perfect figures for high school athletes to model themselves after. When kids watch other kids, who could be their peers, in video games and on national television, it’s very hard not to aspire to fill their shoes.

As the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has come closer and closer to resembling a professional organization, issues have been created. The NCAA, as part of it’s purpose, takes place directly in the midst of college. Thus, the problem arises. Students becoming athletes completely undermines the idea of education: why sit here and aspire to go through four years of law school while my friend will make millions next year bouncing a ball? It’s a legitimate question, and has undoubtedly had negative effects on the integrity of a college education.

Just as high school sports are aligned with college sports, college sports are aligned with professional sports. The NCAA has become a multi-billion dollar industry, according to PBS’s FRONTLINE. The episode, entitled “Money and March Madness,” outlines the issue of compensation for players in college sports. A group of former college athletes are suing the NCAA for failing to compensate players regardless of the lucrative revenues brought in each year. As best-selling author Michael Lewis puts it, “College sports is professional in every aspect but one: they don’t pay the labor.”

The implications of this circumstance are critical. If we suddenly begin to pay college athletes, they are no longer students. The entire idea of college would be trivialized, as the main idea of attending school would be to make money rather than to obtain an education.

In fact, that process has already begun. According to “Money and March Madness,” Baylor University’s men’s basketball team has had declining graduation rates for over a decade. Less than half of their athletes graduate, and only 29% of their African-American athletes graduate. In all of college basketball, there are 16 teams that graduate less than half of their athletes. As of now, there are no penalties for these schools.

Clearly, the deterioration of college education, at the hands of sports, is in full force. College sports has become such a profitable industry that colleges are willing to focus less on education and more on sports. As Michael Lewis notes, “Getting educated is hard to do when you’re spending 50 hours a week playing football or basketball.”

While the education of college athletes is certainly in jeopardy, college sports also has damaging effects on those not participating. As college sports became more and more popular, traditional education began to change, resulting in a less academically motivated population of students.

Murray Sperber, in his book, Beer and Circus: How Big-time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, writes:

In the 1970s and 1980s, the lack of interest in college sports not only separated academics from the mainstream of university life at many schools, but also from an important component of popular culture outside the university. As the electronic media ratcheted up the coverage of all sports, especially intercollegiate athletics, more students embraced their college teams than previously, and more members of the general public became college sports fans. Nevertheless, a majority of academics remained indifferent to the fun and games, usually spending basketball nights and football afternoons doing course work.

First, Sperber notes that the change in culture that has made college sports a billion dollar industry started within the past 20 or so years. Electronic media, he argues, is what made college sports extremely popular, and what caused many more students to become fans of their school’s sports teams.

Sperber then goes on to discuss the effects of this phenomenon. As harmless as it may sound for a student to begin cheering on his or her college team, it seems as though the popularity of college sports has changed the culture of many students. Sperber suggests that, while college sports still existed in the 1970s and 1980s, many students were uninterested and chose studying over attending a sporting event. However, as students have become more interested in college sports than ever before, there has been a shift in priorities that has left studying behind. Due to the popularity of college sports, Sperber states that college has become “a four-year part, one long tailgater with an $18,000 cover charge.”

* * *

I opened with a few questions about education. Essentially, I attempted to answer the question: how have sports influenced our culture and have they affected education? But the truly defining question is something different. I wouldn’t bother examining education unless I felt there was something being done wrong or there was a standard that wasn’t being met. In the United States, that is certainly the case.

The United States should be commended for it’s focus on education. I spoke with a 16 year old from Barcelona, Spain, and he spoke of American schools with very high regard. Everyone in Spain wants to attend American schools, he said.

The numbers back this all up. In 2008, the United States spent over $16 billion dollars on financial aid, federal Pell Grants, and other post-secondary education spending. An additional $24 billion was spent on the ten year old No Child Left Behind Legislation that aims to get every student in America proficient in math or reading by 2014. For what it’s worth, the government is moving in the right direction.

Through the effects of sports that we have seen over the past few decades, though, we learn something rather interesting. Money alone—even tens of billions of dollars—cannot solve the problem. High school, college, and professional sports and their effects have taught us that no amount of money can make up for destructive values. You can spend, spend, spend, but you can’t remove the reality that Alex Rodriguez never went to college and still makes $32 million a year.

There are other factors as well. Diane Ravitch comments on the No Child Left Behind legislation in her column, entitled “Waiting for a School Miracle”:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance.


If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle.

These are all realities. Developing an intelligent youth that craves a good education is a very difficult accomplishment. Sports, our values, family income, and many other factors directly influence education. Tackling problems within education by strictly looking at education will not solve anything. Yes, it’s frustrating to think that what happens on a basketball court can affect what happens in a classroom, but it’s reality.

That is the lesson that we must learn. We can’t ask for Baylor University to discontinue it’s basketball program, or for Alex Rodriguez to get rid of his paycheck. But we can ask for the PSAL to ask more of high school athletes, or for Congress to recognize the link between education and, say, health care.

I thought about joining my high school’s baseball team when I was a freshman. It was something I had in mind all through middle school, and I was beyond excited to get involved. After the first team meeting, I learned that practice was every day after school. That was going to conflict with my other club, Model United Nations. After talking to a few people on the team, it became evident that it would not bode well with the coach if I missed just one practice a week to attend Model UN meetings. I had a choice to make.

It didn’t take me a long time to recognize a problem. Here I was, a freshman in high school, faced with a decision: joining a sports team, or joining the very prestigious Model UN. Why did I have to choose? My entire life, I viewed sports as a hobby. Never had I imagined that our society would make me choose between participating in an academic club and playing baseball. Something was wrong.

The problem is growing. CBS Broadcasting and Turner Broadcasting System currently have a deal to televise NCAA basketball games for $10.8 billion; the court system will soon decide if college athletes should be paid. It’s getting out of hand. Slowly but surely, education is inching towards a world drowned in sports, where making money and drawing national attention is a top priority.

This can be stopped, and it needs to be. As Louis Menand writes in The New Yorker, “Education is about personal and intellectual growth,” not accumulating attention and developing physical skills at the expense of more valuable abilities. We shouldn’t let sports destroy the essential power of education.

To our leaders: I refuse to sit back and watch as potential engineers and doctors—that could create new clean energy alternatives or save lives—ruin their future by attempting to turn a hobby into a career. For our future, for our prosperity, and for our success, we must remind ourselves that an A+ is much more important than a home run.


6 Responses to “Math v. March Madness”
  1. stratobill says:

    Please don’t play tricks with the numbers you use to support your case. It’s

    For example, you compare the combined revenue of the 4 major sports leagues to the amount spent on the College and Career Ready program as proof that sports are more important to Americans than education. Why didn’t you compare the amount spent on
    education at all levels to the revenue of professional sports? Seems like that would be more fair.

    Let’s see, $22 billion in major sports revenue compared to an estimated $400 billion for elementary and secondary education that I found with a google search.
    If that figure is anywhere near accurate, it shows that we spend a lot more on education than professional sports. And the figure I found doesn’t even include
    college and post-graduate spending.

  2. stratobill says:

    Regarding your concern that college athletes in big-time sports arent’ getting a good college education, that ship sailed a long, long time ago. I’d say that for at least the past 40 years the money schools get from television contracts has turned college football into more of a business than a sport. I have no problem with paying college athletes because the alternative is to continue paying huge salaries to coaches and administrators. Why should they get rich while the players who make it possible get little more than a sham education?

    For example, some college coaches make a million bucks a year in salary and other perks. If you took half of that and split it up between 100 athletes they’d each get $5,000. Not a fortune but it wouldn’t hurt. Considering all the revenue and publicity they bring to their schools, they deserve it.

  3. Jess says:

    @stratobill – Check your numbers. That $400 billion is actually over 10 times the amount actually spent. Source:

  4. Jess says:

    @stratobill@stratobill – “According to “Money and March Madness,” Baylor University’s men’s basketball team has had declining graduation rates for over a decade. Less than half of their athletes graduate, and only 29% of their African-American athletes graduate. In all of college basketball, there are 16 teams that graduate less than half of their athletes. As of now, there are no penalties for these schools.
    Source: (” Doesn’t seem like college athletes are getting a good education…

  5. BaseballinDC says:

    @Jess – Jess, I don’t think you’re comparing apples to apples.

    Stratobill is citing total spending in the US on education, and he’s actually understating the figure. In 2008-2009, total spending on elementary and secondary education was slightly over $600 billion (see table 1 on page xi).

    What you’re looking at is total US Department of Education spending. Federal spending only constitutes a small % of education spending in the US, which is primarily driven by local property taxes.


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