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Opinion | End exclusionary policies on school sports teams

Stop 'winning first' strategies. Schools need to adopt 'everyone plays' policies.

How many of us have had to ride the bench on school athletic teams, or watch our children experience shame and embarrassment because they didn’t get into the game?

School sports coaches often keep many of their players on the bench for entire games in pursuit of victory. These “winning first” policies are the norm in school sports but at odds with modern values of equitable treatment and inclusion, and poorly serve the purposes of athletic education.

They need to be replaced by “everyone plays” policies, in which every team member is entitled to meaningful (at least 20%) playing time in all games.

I was discouraged from continuing with organized basketball when my eighth-grade coach wouldn’t let me into games, and I am now seeing my own eighth-grader (and five of her teammates) excluded from meaningful participation in the games of the school volleyball team. How many tens of millions of kids have been discouraged from continuing with a sport they otherwise like because they were relegated to the bench for being, in the coach’s eyes, too short, too tall, too fat, too skinny, or too uncoordinated? 

The real purposes of school athletics are teaching kids teamwork and sports skills and promoting fitness. All of those goals are poorly served by “winning first” policies which exclude players from meaningful participation in games. Such exclusionary policies teach the kids on the bench that they aren’t full members of the team and that they don’t have much reason to participate in the sport, effects that snowball as the non-playing kids fall further behind the kids that play. Worse, these policies teach kids that it is acceptable to exclude some people, treat them inequitably, and cause emotional pain in the interest of winning. These policies harm not only the benchwarming kids, but also the kids who play and feel shame, guilt and powerlessness in connection with the mistreatment of their teammates. 

The competitive disadvantage of teams making sure everyone plays is small, if not nonexistent. On most teams, there are usually one or two players who stand out above the rest, while the rest are somewhere in the middle. An “everyone plays” policy allows the standouts to continue playing all or most of the game. It also provides more opportunity for late-blooming kids to blossom into stars and it fosters stronger team spirit. Of course, when entire school sports leagues adopt “everyone plays” as a new standard, any competitive disadvantage associated with “everyone plays” is eliminated.

If we teach our children that the stakes of a school sports game are too important to apply principles of equity and inclusion, then they are less likely to work to apply those principles in the workplace and society’s other fields of competition. Universal values such as inclusion are best advanced when they are applied broadly, because more people will have an understanding of their importance and a stake in their perpetuation. If young people are taught that the world is a cold, hypercompetitive place where those deemed less able are pushed to the side, they are more likely to perpetuate such values as adults.

School sports are an important part of schools’ educational mission. It is past time for schools to modernize their athletic policies to require that all of the players on their teams get meaningful playing time in all games. “Success” achieved by treating kids inequitably, modeling exclusionary social norms, and discouraging student participation in sports isn’t success at all.

About the Author

Matthew Metz

Matthew Metz is the co-executive director of Coltura, an environmental advocacy group, and the parent of a Seattle eighth-grader.