Public spending on high school athletics has grown extreme, exemplified by a public school in Allen, Texas that built a $60 million football stadium in 2011. Equipped with a three-dimensional scoreboard and an 18,000 seating capacity, this is not the most expensive in Texas, according to The Center for Education Policy and Development. 

So I wondered, why do high schools spend so much time and money on sports? Is it a good thing for school? What I discovered is that the only reason to be in school is to win at the testing game. Because school is about curriculum and tests. But there is one way around that game, and that is athletics.

Sports get you into college
Most kids who have a passion outside of high school, and are outstanding at that passion, are homeschooling. But this is not true with sports. You can be passionate about sports and your school will fund it, and encourage it. And sports can get you into college pretty much as well as academics can.

The amount of money going toward sports scholarships is growing faster than inflation, and sports have distorted the admissions process even at highly selective colleges that don’t have athletic scholarships. Recruited athletes are four times as likely to gain admission over a student with similar academic credentials.

Sports are the best predictor of high wages
Students who play a varsity sport in college are so likely to do well in their work life that there are recruiting firms that specialize in athletes. And pharmaceutical companies are notorious for recruiting cheerleaders out of college because they are great salespeople. John Barron writes in The Review of Economics and Statistics, that wages are 15% higher if someone does sports as an extracurricular in high school.

Expensive sports are a great way to buy academic credentials
Rich parents want to buy academic credentials for their kids but it’s elusive. If you get a kid on patrician sports like sailing, polo, lacrosse, and fencing they have a relatively weak competition but the teams have to be filled in elite schools the same as baseball, football and soccer, according to education professor Tim Stewart, writing in the US-China Education Review.

The US is the only country that combines sports and education. Most countries have clubs, and leagues and private coaches. The argument for separating the two is propelled by estimates that more than $50 million in high school spending would be diverted away from athletics and over to academics.

But this is a hard argument to make when it’s so clear that participation on athletic team or in a league paves the way for a lot of success in adult life.

The classic complaint against overspending on sports at the expense of academics ignores the reality that sports is providing essential learning that test-based schooling doesn’t and can’t provide. So, in a society where we herd kids to school, make them memorize stuff they don’t care about, and then push them into six-figure debt for school—spending education funding on high school sports makes a lot of sense. If you have a choice between academics and sport, focusing on sports is a better way to meet the goals that school lays out for students. It’s more fun, more lucrative, and a more certain path to college than getting good grades.

It’s not just $60 million dollar football stadiums for high school. More than 50% of of high school principals in the Midwest are former football coaches. Because our schools have a value system that makes these sort of statistics make sense.

But these benefits may be short lived. Kathleen DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Association, shows a trend to use private clubs and coaches instead of those at the public school. And Forbes reports the same thing is happening in high school soccer.

When parents perceive there is a lot at stake, when parents want their kids to be able to follow their passion, they start taking their kids out of school. And the result with sports is the same as when parents take anything else into their own hands: their kids do better.