Coffino, Michael J. The Other Classroom: The Essential Importance of High School Athletics. Pp. 199. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2018. $28.00 Softcover.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
As someone who has spent 30+ years working in the educational field (five years as a high school teacher, the rest at colleges and universities), the notion of whether we in the United States, so enthralled with scholastic athletics at all levels, are really doing a disservice to young people by placing enormous emphasis on athletic competition, has often crossed my mind. Frankly, my analysis of this crucial topic has gone back and forth over the years. Living in the football-mad state of Texas, I have had more than one opportunity to encounter stories that both argue against (Friday Nigh Lights?) and for (my own research on great coaches and educators such as E.C. Lerma) the value of athletic competition in such settings.
In the classroom, and as an administrator, I’ve encountered student-athletes who are the very personification of that word: diligent, hard-working, and gifted both on the field (or court) and in the classroom. I have also confronted individuals who were adherents to the philosophy of Cardale Jones. You might recall that this former Ohio State Buckeyes’ quarterback infamously and not-so-eruditely noted in 2012, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play football, we ain’t come to play school, classes are pointless.” In doing my research on the role of Latinos in athletics throughout this nation (though mostly focusing on Texas), I have come across many stories along both lines of this argument. No doubt, the notion of the role of athletics in American schools is of critical importance, and there are learned and passionate adherents to both sides of the argument.
So, which side of the debate makes the stronger case? Recent works in this field include Mark Hyman’s negative assessment, Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, as well as an intriguing article by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic entitled “The Case against High School Sports.” On the other side of the fence we find John Tufte in his work, Crazy-Proofing High School Sports as well as Daniel H. Brown and Collin Hitt’s essay (also in The Atlantic), “High School Sports Aren’t Killing Academics.” To this “positive” side of the discussion there is now another offering: The Other Classroom: the Essential Importance of High School Athletics by Michael J. Coffino. The author, who has worked both as a lawyer and high school basketball coach (for over twenty years), argues that not only are high school sports critical to the (academic, social, and occupational) well-being of individual athletes, they are imperative to the proper functioning of society and the economy. Coffino makes a strong case in support of his argument based on academic research as well as a substantial number of interviews with coaches and athletes.
Over a total of 19 chapters, Coffino presents various positive and life-affirming traits that an effective and properly operated high school athletic program can help instill into their charges; regardless of the sports played. The most important sections of this work come at the start and the very end of the work. Coffino first discusses and supports his thesis of the value of high school sports. He directly confronts Ripley’s work by countering that the reason why the school (in Premont, Texas) she profiled in her essay dropped football (as mortal a sin as is possible to commit in education in our state) was primarily because of expenses and the attitudes of students. True enough, but then Coffino (also utilizing Brown and Hitt’s piece, which appeared in the same issue as Ripley’s) goes on to note that the district was poorly (financially and pedagogically) run, teachers were often not properly trained, and economic circumstances outside of the district’s control lead to a dramatic downturn in finances. All of these matters, Coffino argues, can be countered (though it is difficult to see how a district can overcome a severe economic downturn without making substantial cuts) with a well thought out and purposefully operated athletic program. At the very end of the work, Coffino goes through an extensive (idealized) plan in order to be able to build for students “bridges to the future.” By the way, that also is the name of Coffino’s imaginary institution in his scenario.
The plan features a section that addresses each individual trait presented in the various chapters. I am not going to point out all of these, but among the important attributes that such a program should develop in students are things such as self-advocacy, leadership, teamwork, time management, a great work ethic, dealing with mistakes and failure, self esteem/confidence, and effective decision making. Coffino’s plan addresses each of these traits, and how elements of the plan can help in developing said skills. After laying out his ambitious plan, Coffino goes on to present an even more significant contribution: he presents readers with hypothetical situations in each of the categories, and how the well-run program can address each. To his credit, Coffino presents challenging, but very realistic, scenarios for potential coaches, teachers, and athletic directors to deal with. Frankly, this section by itself makes the purchase of the book worthwhile; particularly for the men and women who occupy such posts in schools and districts.
While there is much to like in this work, I could not help but think back to my days as a high school teacher in Miami-Dade County. I had the opportunity to interact with many great coaches and a couple of wonderful athletic directors. My two assignments were in schools that were predominantly white, and in sections of the city that were fairly affluent. Not surprisingly, the main concern that this work raises (though Coffino does address this in some of his interviews) is how this scenario would apply in inner-city and poor (and often largely Latino) areas. Is there a “one way” to do things that will help all classes and races/ethnicities of students equally? That is certainly not the issue that Coffino sets out to address, but it is certainly a topic that needs extensive research. My analysis of this work is that the author presents a model that would provide many benefits to a majority of students, but it is necessary to have committed adults at the helm of such undertakings so that the returns are distributed in a comparable manner to all.
A final point to this well written, argued and supported work can be found in an article that appeared in Inc. magazine in November of 2016. Christina DesMarais’ essay, “5 Reasons Athletes Make the Best Employees,” is an affirmation of what Coffino presents in The Other Classroom. Certainly, DesMarais notes, individuals need to have the proper academic skills (and for at least some athletes, the only reason to stay in school and to remain academically eligible, is to continue to play) to be successful in the work place. However, DesMarais also presents key traits (time management, work ethic, perseverance, being trainable, and a good teammate in a corporate setting) which are key to accomplishment in the workplace. If these characteristics are critical to employment success (and all of the benefits derived there from), student athletes in a well-run (and that is the key element!) program will be learning qualities that will help them thrive. If they acquire these, many can change the trajectory of their lives, and that of their families. Once the cheering in the stands ends, that is certainly of great benefit. Coffino’s work does not provide all of the answers, but he certainly does an effective job of presenting his readers with a roadmap that can benefit many students throughout our nation. Is that not worth our investment?
Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.