Keeping sports in high schools

Bonneville High School athlete Jaden Howell says, “If we took away high school sports, it would affect tons of kids and make high school a lot harder to get through.” (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

Bonneville High School athlete Jaden Howell says, “If we took away high school sports, it would affect tons of kids and make high school a lot harder to get through.” (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

By KIRSTEN JOHNSON kjohnson@postregister.com

At Bonneville High School, “Bee Pride” is evident just about everywhere you look — from the larger-than-life mascot painted on the decades-old school’s iconic brick walls, to the white, green and gold swag adorning just about every other student.

Even Bonneville’s Principal Heath Jackson is a former Bee football player who in 1992 starred in the very first Civil War — a yearly rivalry football game against Hillcrest which draws crowds of upward of 5,000.

When Bonneville Joint School District 93’s $63.5 million bond passed last month, some grumbled at the proposal’s roughly $15 million allotment toward athletic facilities — specifically, about $2.1 million dedicated to a new football stadium. But at Bonneville, and for those who say athletics are an integral part of the American high school experience, that’s money well spent.

“Sports build a great sense of pride in the community and pride in the schools,” Jackson said. “Some of our biggest events in the community are athletic events — we get to be put on display. It really does build a sense of pride.”

The bond election showed the community is also in favor of athletics: 67.52 percent of the district’s patrons who voted in the November were in support of including the stadium and auditorium.

“(It shows) athletics ranks as a pretty important item in our community,” said Dale Gardner, Bonneville’s athletic director.

Feeding on the glory

Around age 2, Jaden Howell recalls opening a particularly memorable Christmas present: A child-sized, rubber basketball from his dad, Jayce. Howell was barely walking, but Jayce wanted his toddler son to learn to shoot hoops. And it worked.

By middle school, Howell, was a member of a competitive traveling basketball team. These days, he’s a varsity basketball player at Bonneville who believes he has high prospects of attending college on an athletic scholarship. He spends several days a week at the gym and religiously monitors his nutrition intake to stay in top athletic shape.

“Sports teach you about life, in my opinion,” Howell said. “(Sports) teach you how to get through adversity when things aren’t going your way. They teach you how to get back up (on) your feet, fight through struggle and hope for a better outcome. You have to make sacrifices to be successful and you learn you can’t just have everything your way. It’s real life lessons.”

Howell is among roughly 40 percent of the Bonneville student body which participates in one of a dozen individual and team sports throughout the year offered at varying skill levels.

He’s also a varsity football player. And in the summer, he’s a member of “the Titans,” a local club basketball team in which he travels around the country to compete.

Howell prefers the crowd support at school sports: Unlike club games, which tend to attract only a handful of parent spectators, high school football games typically draw a good crowd, Howell said. At big rivalry games, the roughly 4,000-seat Thunder Stadium fills to capacity.

“There’s nothing better than a big football game,” Howell said. “When I’m on the field, it’s just a great feeling when there’s thousands of people watching and you’re free to do your thing and make things happen. (School sports) are where all the glory is and all your fans get to see how much work goes into it. If you only do club ball, no one can see you.”

Cost incentives

School sports also provide an alternative to the cost of club sports. Howell said players on his traveling team are responsible for expenses such as travel costs, hotel bills and food, which can add up quickly.

Barbara Ehardt, city councilwoman and coach of Howell’s club basketball team estimates each player can expect an initial payment around $700 per season to be part of a club team.

School sport, on the other hand, typically cost less, in part because they’re taxpayer subsidized.

Hillcrest Athletic Director Barney Gardner said students pay a $100 flat fee to participate in any sport. The school keeps $30 to fund uniforms and equipment while the remaining money funnels into the district’s general fund to offset costs associated with those programs.

Gate revenue from basketball and football games helps sustain costs associated with the school’s other sports, Gardner said. And additional costs — such as money for out-of-state tournaments — largely are covered by team fundraising or other school funding sources.

“We are pretty self-sufficient as far as that goes,” Barney Gardner said.

The district foots the cost of most transportation and coach stipends, District 93 Chief Financial Officer April Burton said. Stipends start at about $1,050 for a beginning position and cap at $11,760 for an experienced athletic trainer.

Character-building

Proponents say sports also help kids keep their grades up. At Hillcrest, student-athletes must maintain a 2.0 minimum GPA to play, Barney Gardner said. Those who fall short are put on an improvement plan. Typically this applies to a handful of students each season, he said.

“Our main purpose here at Hillcrest is to have every kid graduate from high school,” Barney Gardner said. “That’s also the goal of our athletic department. And I’m not sure that’s something that’s a high priority in, say, club sports.”

Some research supports the idea that school sports can help with academics. One study of about 140,000 high school students in Kansas showed “athletes earned higher grades, graduated at a higher rate, dropped out of school less frequently, and scored higher on state assessments than did non-athletes.”

And Barney Gardner thinks the roughly 60 percent of students who choose not to participate in athletics still benefit from school sports. Sports facilities — such as the track behind Sandcreek Middle School — are utilized by non-athlete students, along with community members fairly regularly, he said. Not to mention, popular events such as football games tend to be big student draws.

“At a football game, how many kids are cheering and watching?” Barney Gardner said. “And then we have the cheerleaders, the band and the dance team always participating at halftime. When you add in all the kids who go to the game and participate (in other ways) you’re looking at a huge percentage of kids.”

When Watersprings School in Idaho Falls added high school grades in 2010-11, it soon added a football program. That hasn’t come without challenges — participation varies each year and associated costs be expensive, said Principal and Athletic Director John Yadon. But for Yadon, who is also a former college athlete, there wasn’t much of a choice.

“Had we not started sports, a lot of kids would have had to go elsewhere (to play),” he said. “It was a pretty big decision for us in order to keep quite a few kids … We think sports are a character-builder. (The students) now know what hard work is; they know what it means to be part of a team. It’s developed them and changed them and that’s huge. Without a doubt, we’d do it again.”

And for students such as Howell, doing things differently isn’t an option.

“If we took away high school sports, it would affect tons of kids and make high school a lot harder to get through,” he said. “For me, it kind of relieves me from my stress. It feels good to be free, go out on the field and do my thing. It’d be very difficult if that was taken away.”

Header photo: Bonneville High School athlete Jaden Howell says, “If we took away high school sports, it would affect tons of kids and make high school a lot harder to get through.” (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

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