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OPINION: Why do athletics trump academics in media coverage?

March 1st, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

This week, the papers got a letter from a frustrated educator who was unhappy with the minimal coverage the students competing in an academic contest got compared to those who compete in athletic events.

Few will argue that in rural Alaska, basketball is king (and queen). It's one of the few supported outlets in rural communities, and Alaska's small communities often produce amazing basketball players. Towns rally behind them, wave banners, turn their players into minor celebrities. It's Alaska's version of the Midwest football hero.

And it's hard not to respect these players. Looking at pictures from around the state, I see incredible athletes - young men and women with beautiful form as they sail toward the basket as if their shockingly neon shoes had some sort of super-hero power. There's a lot of sweat behind that form, to be sure.

Now it's true that few, if any, of these players will make the big time, or even go on to play college ball. But in the meantime, it gives them something to focus on other than the many other less productive ways of spending one's teenage free time. Few can argue that there's a lot of positive benefits from participating in athletics ....

With childhood obesity rising daily to epidemic levels, the simple fact that youth who participate in athletics are not sitting in front of a television or video game is one of the first benefits studies turn to when listing the positives youth get from participating in athletics. Lifelong lessons in teamwork and sportsmanship also rise to the top of benefits from athletic participation as a young person. Sports are also said to improve participants' leadership skills and increase self discipline.

But is the balance between the amount of focus we as a society put on sports versus athletics out of whack, as our disgruntled reader pointed out? What about the youth who would rather while away their days in a library, absorbing knowledge. When they compete in spelling contests, geography bees and reading retention competitions, why does the community not sing their praises as loudly?

Perhaps we are just following a national trend that places a much higher value on athletics than academics. According to a report by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, colleges across the country spent a median of $84,446 per athlete in 2008, up some 38 percent from 2005. Academic investment increased a median $13,349 per student, about half as much.

Students looking for ways to fund their education are also caught in an interesting conundrum. There are far more scholarships - more lucrative ones, too - for athletes than there are for academic scholars, who often have to have gold-star grades to compete for scholarships at the major schools. Palm a ball, however, and people come looking for you. Not only that, when athletes sign on with a certain college, there is a lot of pomp and circumstance - a media event with big checks and handshakes and lots of photos. You surely don't see that happening in the academic world.

The bottom line is that this is an issue of money. People are excited about sports, so they watch them. Since they watch them, advertisers can make money off that excitement, and therefor, so can universities. On the other hand, the annual salaries of public university basketball coaches are often up in the millions. So in the end, it's hard to know who is coming out ahead. But those analyzing the situation say it all boils down to the nation's priorities. Sports, which were originally incorporated into scholastic programs as a way of encouraging school unity, are now a large financial engine for these schools, with the media playing a large part in perpetuating that reality.

So how can small-town newspapers help balance out this pendulum? I would argue that we are more than happy to promote the academic achievements of students, be it in or out of a competition setting. We write feature stories on projects that students are doing, profiles on youth whose accomplishments are interesting, and are always looking for more ways to cover those within the community beyond the basketball court.

The problem isn't a lack of interest on our part. The problem is, people are pretty shy about self-promotion, especially outside of the realms that are considered acceptable. I visited a few Arctic schools last week, and people were surprised to see a person with a camera around her neck wandering the halls. Permissions had to be obtained, red tape overcome. If it had been a sports event, none of that would have happened. It's accepted and assumed that the media will want to cover sports, so the door is open to that sort of coverage. Stats are provided readily, coaches are generally available for comment on a weekly basis, and people send us photographs and thoughts about the accomplishments of their athletic teams.

Imagine if you will that academic program leaders acted the same way - were proactive about sending out press releases with photos and promoting their students' academic achievements. Do you think such accomplishments would be ignored? Never. But I think there is a stigma about promoting academic achievement that we need to get over. We should be proud of our scholars - they are the people who will cure diseases, solve environmental crisis and invent the things that will keep our world rolling.

The only goal small newspapers have is to remain relevant to the readers in their communities, and sports provide an opportunity to do that - to showcase young people in their community doing positive things. I challenge those engaged in academic programs with youth to be more proactive about letting the media know about their activities, too. Not only will this help balance the coverage in these papers, but also it will send an important message to readers of all ages about what your community values.


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