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Eric Bertun, Big Eight high school conference commissioner; (l-r) David Bell, Wisconsin Injury in Sport Laboratory director; Alex Mundy, coach of Nemea, the West High girls ultimate frisbee team; Will Green, Mentoring Positives co-founder and La Follette High School girls basketball coach; and Jeremy Schlitz, Madison Metropolitan School District athletic director participated in a Cap Times Talk on whether high schools should be in the sports business. Cap Times news editor Jason Joyce (far right) moderated the discussion held at James Madison Memorial High School.

“Play is good for kids,” said Jason Joyce, news editor of the Cap Times, at a Cap Times talk Tuesday night. “Team sports develop a lot of skills that have nothing to do with dribbling, skating or blocking."

They can push kids to excel and the community to rally around their local teams, Joyce said. But do they come at the expense of academics, the arts or the safety of the athletes?

Just this week, there was news that a Madison basketball referee will sue, after he was allegedly punched by a college coach and his son after a game in January.

Last year, a Cap Times cover story on head injuries in youth sports in Madison highlighted some of the concerns about concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head injuries.

On Tuesday night at Memorial High School, a Cap Times talk explored the future of high school sports. While there is cause for concern with issues like injuries and the abuse heaped on referees, when faced with the question, “Should high schools be in the sports business?” panelists agreed: high school sports are an important, accessible way for kids to pick up lifelong skills and enrich their high school experience. 

The panel included Eric Bertun, Big Eight high school conference commissioner and director of operations for Capital East Soccer Club; David Bell, director of the Wisconsin Injury in Sport Laboratory; Alex Mundy, coach of West High School’s girls ultimate frisbee club team; Will Green, co-founder of Mentoring Positives and the La Follette High School girls basketball coach; and Jeremy Schlitz, athletic director for the Madison Metropolitan School District. 

Sports bring the obvious benefits of physical activity, like decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, joint disease and osteoarthritis, Bell said, and being active as a kid means individuals are more likely to be active as adults.

What can pose a physical risk is “sports specialization,” he said, or when “kids are focused to play a single sport at the exclusion of other sports.” That’s about 35 percent of the kids in Madison, and it’s linked to musculoskeletal injury, he said.

There’s also been a lot of media attention on concussions and CTE, and Joyce asked Bell whether he thought there would still be high school football in 20 years.

Bell said that high school football is already changing, like limiting the number of hits, and that’s “probably good for the long-term health of the athlete.”

“I think there’s still going to be football. I don’t know what it will look like,” Bell said.

MMSD's Schlitz said that the Madison area was “really on the front edge” of protecting kids in contact sports, pointing to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s concussion insurance.

Outside of injury, there is nastiness to consider. Referees are subject to derogatory comments, said the Big Eight's Bertun, noting that a large part of his job is assigning sports officials to games.

The National Association of Sports Officials found that over 86 percent of sports officials surveyed had suffered verbal abuse while officiating, and over half had feared for their safety.

“It’s sort of indicative of how our society has become more hostile and less tolerant of people in general. It’s not just athletics,” Bertun said.

The number of high school officials is cause for concern as well, Bertun said, saying that older officials are retiring and not being replaced. One reason for that could be the healthy economy, as “officials maybe don’t need that extra 50 bucks.”

But there are powerfully positive aspects of high school sports, panelists pointed out. One major advantage: they’re accessible to kids in a wide range of economic backgrounds.

“Our goal is really to make our athletics program reflective of our schools,” Schlitz said. “I think we can celebrate the successes, the diversity, the uniqueness, participation and all those things through education-based athletics.”

That’s not necessarily true in pay-to-play club sports, he said.

A survey by Bell’s Wisconsin Injury in Sport Laboratory showed that parents paid about $250 a year for their kids to participate in high school sports — and about $2,000 or $2,500 for club sports, with many parents admitting to easily shelling out $10,000 per kid, per year. When sports are “pay to play,” he said, “we’re shutting kids out of that system rather than embracing them into it.”

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The promise of a college scholarship drives a lot of the pay-to-play model, Bertun said, but it often doesn’t add up. Less than 2 percent of high school athletes get a Division 1 scholarship, and the average amount is about $10,000 a year — which may mean “the money spent to get to that point, in many cases, could be used more wisely.”

Plus, a MMSD study several years ago showed that students participating in athletics had higher grade point averages and a decrease in attendance and behavior issues, Schlitz said, though he noted it’s a “chicken or the egg question,’ as it might reflect a group of students who want to be connected to the school.

“I think the idea of having additional adult educators that are looking out for them as both a student and an athlete … that’s really the biggest benefit,” Schlitz said.

La Follette's Green loves the opportunity of “creating a culture where kids have a space,” but it takes time to build relationships and trust with the kids, he said.

“I’m good with the Xs and Os, and I know that I deal with a lot outside of that,” he said.

Green works hard to create a positive atmosphere, and “cheerleads these kids a lot.” That can be tougher when he takes his team to nicer facilities in Sun Prairie or Verona, which serve as physical proof a school cares about kids or the program, he said.

Ultimate coach Mundy also is limited by her school’s facilities.

“While West has an amazing athletics program, the lack of space is really what gets us,” Mundy said.

Even though ultimate frisbee is one of the biggest sports programs at West and wins state titles, because they’re not a varsity sport, “we kind of get last dibbs on gym space,” she said.

Schlitz said that compared to some nearby schools, MMSD suffers from a “lack of abundance of land,” to expand sports facilities. He also pointed out that other school systems like Verona have voted yes on some referendums, and he encouraged audience members to do the same whenever they get a chance. Schlitz said the district has upgraded some facilities in the last few years, but he thinks there’s value in the “storied tradition” of Madison’s facilities.

Facilities that were built “50, 60 years ago, or 100 years ago, and finding ways to repurpose them is a great thing to celebrate, too,” he said.