Athletics and The Bond

I know, I know, it’s election day and by the time anyone sees this, they will likely already have voted. But this is has been rattling around in my head for a while, and I think that whether the Bond passes or fails, it speaks to some of our local attitudes about sports and education.  Spoiler alert: I think that Iowa City area intellectuals (who are, after all, experts on everything under the sun) tend to reflexively undervalue youth sports.  Also, the ICCSD GO Bond doesn’t overemphasize sports and athletic facilities.

Per above, the charge I’m responding to, made by many Vote No advocates, is that the bond spends too much money on sports.  That’s often accompanied by the charge that it doesn’t provide for Vocational and Technical Education, an argument I addressed here.  Sometimes it’s accompanied by the false claim that this athletics spending comes before some low income schools like Kirkwood and Alexander (which are already air conditioned but will get updates to their HVAC systems late in the plan) receive air conditioning.  In other places it’s attached to the more general claim that the FMP and/or the bond puts projects at low income schools last.  I don’t think that this is a fair claim either, given the work at Twain and the construction of Alexander in the very first year of the plan, and the fact that the bond-dependent structures are arranged so that all elementary school space is air conditioned first.  (if there were more days before the election–and thank whatever powers you want that there aren’t–I could write a whole post about the factors affecting the timeline of those projects that make it unwise to read their order purely as a ranked accounting of their “importance”. )

But, absent these unsupportable comparisons, I do want to consider whether it’s fair to say that the bond or the FMP unduly prioritizes athletics.  It’s a fair question to ask about any bond measure, sight unseen, given the place of sports in our popular and collegiate institutional culture. But I think that looking at the timeline and number of projects on the plan, bond and non-bond dependent, shows us that it isn’t true.

First notice that we go 4 years and 12 projects into the FMP before we have a project that even touches athletic facilities, and that project (at West High) also renovates the cafeteria, kitchen, and loading dock.  There is a large athletics project (sports facilities for Liberty High) in the first year of the Bond, which is probably the origin of many of the above claims.  But, even separating the bond-dependent projects from the rest of the plan, we should note that this project is preceded in the same year by work at two elementary schools.  And, looking at all of the bond-dependent projects, only 4 in 20 involve sports facilities, and only the project at Liberty is entirely an athletic facilities project.

in terms of money, the purely-athletic project at Liberty is budgeted at $12,543,905. Beyond that, it’s hard to add up how much money total on the bond is going to sports.  Vote No advocates have been citing a “$30 Million Dollar Sports project” at City High, but that project also includes a classroom addition, cafeteria and kitchen expansion, accessibility improvements, geothermal HVAC update, roof replacement, and lighting renovations.  This is the largest of the projects that involve sports facilities.  Even not teasing out the exact costs though, I feel confident in saying that, if full athletic facilities for a comprehensive high school cost $12 Million, then I doubt that all four of the bond-dependent projects that involve sports put too deep a dint in the total $191 Million price tag.

There’s another point to be made here too though.  I think that it’s very, very easy for Iowa City area intellectuals (like me) to unfairly dismiss youth sports.  After all, we live in a college town that goes sports-crazy during football season. Many of us worry about the amount of institutional gravity that college sports exert (and the institutional energy and dollars they consume) within American universities. It’s easy for us to transfer these worries to the relationship between youth sports and academics, particularly if we didn’t have great experiences with jocks during our own high school years.

These are mostly legitimate concerns, but youth sports are different, and I think, valuable.  On an anecdotal level, I can tell you about what participating in youth sports has meant for my daughter, who has not only learned how to compete with grace and aplomb, and how to bond with and support her teammates in a shared endeavor, but also how to express herself as a unique person through the acquisition, practice, and execution of physical skills.  This has helped grow her confidence and self assurance, brought her in touch with some of her deepest emotions, and made her more comfortable with her physical self.  It’s something to see.

Beyond that, there is plenty of scholarly research supporting the notion that youth sports help many kids who are at-risk for dropping out stay in school by giving them a comfortable avenue for connecting with and identifying with their school. And, there are of course the physical benefits that accrue from sports participation.  And, beyond even that, we have to consider that what’s valued by Iowa City area intellectuals can’t necessarily be the defining, or in this case, constraining, values regarding what is available and what is not in public schools that are meant to serve everyone.  Everyone.

Now, go vote if you haven’t already!


Author: Eric D. Johnson

I do American Studies (PhD University of Iowa 2012) scholarship, including but not limited to: Race and Genre in American Popular Music, Critical Southern Studies, and African American Memory and History in the Ozarks. I also write about educational policy and politics, focusing on integration and desegregation and the intersection of school and housing policies.

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