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Sports in schools, or in communities?

Budget problems have led high schools to cut back on funding of sports programs in recent years, an economic trend which has been noted here before. Today's newspapers offer two different views of this issue.

In the Twin Cities, Bob Shaw discusses private sector provision of sports programs. A private program may offer better tailored programs for your child, as Shaw's article points out. Here in South Carolina, many self-organized and community programs are superior their counterparts at the middle school level. Baseball, football, and swimming are common examples. And should your child want to play hockey or soccer, there is no other choice. The growth in alternatives to school programs has some people concerned.

A generation ago, public schools and YMCAs had a monopoly on athletic programs for children. But increasingly, parents want more - and entrepreneurs have rushed in to fill the gap.

In the past several years, private sports businesses have built swimming pools, gyms, soccer fields - almost always better and more specialized than what public schools provide.

That worries some experts. Those facilities and the non-school teams they often sponsor can fragment a child's social life, forcing choices between "school friends" and "sports friends," according to Dave Stead, director of the nonprofit Minnesota State High School League, which runs public-school athletic programs.

That ruptures the sense of community for children, Stead said.

I wouldn't call an interested party like Mr. Stead an "expert," but nevertheless he is well placed to observe the tension between the two forms of providing athletic programs for children.

In Canton, Ohio, columnist Rick Senften is moved to consider alternatives by a decision which denied a 19 year-old the opportunity to play high school football.

This might not happen if we were to devise a network of community leagues for every sport. An athlete could play as long as his or her skills would allow. Sports would cease to be the distraction they are in schools, and athletes would not hold their inflated status among their peers. Schools could regain a proper focus on academics. Fans and families would, in time, redirect their support from the neighborhood school to the neighborhood club. Scouts and recruiters know where to find talent - wherever it might show itself - so that's not even an issue.

The Dennis Underwood situation may be a sad one, but it also suggests an alternative, provided the community is enlightened enough to grasp it.

The tie-in of athletic competition and education is much stronger in the U.S. than the rest of the world. Recent trends suggest that the tie may be unraveling. The school choice movement, to the extent it is successful, should accelerate this development.