Opinion: Classrooms play defense while football scores

A UGA education professor emeritus says outfitting a whole high school football team can total tens of thousands of dollars.
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A UGA education professor emeritus says outfitting a whole high school football team can total tens of thousands of dollars.

UGA professor emeritus decries money flowing to football programs while teachers buy pencils

University of Georgia professor emeritus Peter Smagorinsky played multiple sports in high school and one year of basketball at Kenyon College; coached basketball and track in Chicago-area high schools; coached youth sports in Norman, Oklahoma, served on the University of Oklahoma Athletics committee and chaired UGA’s Faculty Athletics Committee; and has been a UGA football season-ticket holder for over two decades.

He clearly enjoys sports, including football. But, in a guest column, Smagorinsky writes about the troubling disparities he sees in how we fund athletics compared to academics.

By Peter Smagorinsky

­As a fan of University of Georgia football, I occasionally watch a highlight reel of a player coach Kirby Smart is recruiting. I recently watched one featuring a major prospect from a Georgia high school and was impressed with his talent.

Something else jumped off the film as I watched: Those kids from a rural Georgia Title 1 school sure are well-equipped. The team’s website lists a roster of more than 80 varsity players. As the highlight reel shifted from game to game, so did the players’ uniforms. Each player has four uniform sets of jersey and britches, each a different color, including whites. The different games showed them mixing and matching them in different games, along with two helmets: one white, the other sporting the team’s colors. They look sharp, and I’m sure are a hit with players and fans of the team.

Meanwhile, according to public records, the average employee salary for the county is about 13% lower than the national average. The superintendent’s salary is about $20,000 less than I’d be making if I were still an English teacher at Oak Park & River Forest High School outside Chicago.

Let’s look at the cost of those football uniforms, while the faculty and administration are so underpaid. Prices vary from product to product, vendor to vendor. Some schools get their uniforms as promotional material from corporations, so that if they play on TV, people not only see top recruits, they see Nike, or Russell, or other brand that gets promoted with every frame of the broadcast. What if they have to buy those uniforms?

Here are some middle-of-the-road costs. A typical price for jersey and britches is about $150. A school with four full uniform sets thus issues $600 worth of uniforms to each player. Helmet costs can vary. Helmets from official NFL helmet maker Riddell retail for $120 - $400 each, depending on the model. But some go for more than $1,000. Given the threat of concussion, I imagine that the more costly the helmet, the better the protection.

Let’s ballpark the cost for a high school football helmet at what might be a low $250, which means that having two helmets requires $500 for each player on the varsity. This cost does not figure in the cost of outfitting the lower-level teams in the program.

Peter Smagorinsky
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Peter Smagorinsky

And football players don’t go barefoot. Cleats range widely in price, from about $20-$120. Let’s be conservative and say that a school goes for the $50 shoe. For a team of 80 players, that’s about $4,000.

That ups the cost to outfit a single varsity football player in the underfunded school I looked into to about $1,150. Outfitting the whole team totals over $90,000, if these rough, and likely conservative, figures are accurate.

A uniform lasts about three years. Helmets have a life of about a decade at most, and either must be replaced or reconditioned. One school in Texas spends $18,500 annually on reconditioning helmets alone.

Meanwhile, teachers are buying their own supplies so their students can have adequate learning resources.

Schools fund such expenses in various ways. Many programs rely on athletic booster club fundraisers. Yet these same schools rarely have anything like an academic booster club. Teachers buy what the tax-based budget cannot provide out of their own pockets, which are already depleted by low salaries, furlough days, and other statements their communities make about their value.

In some schools, the football program raises its own revenues through golf tournaments or selling program ads or spirits cards. I can find no reports online of discount cards supporting STEM or literacy education in Georgia high schools. Nor have I seen such extensive fundraising efforts to support extracurricular non-athletic activities of any kind. I can find no arrangement with book publishers, computer companies, pencil manufacturers, furniture vendors, or other companies to support schools so that when kids open their backpacks, people will be impressed that they have books by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Pearson.

Some Big Tech operators have provided such services as Google Classroom for free, no doubt to hook kids into Google as their tech company for life. But “Generally, the K-12 education market is not a core profit center compared to wider business. It is a lot smaller than most other corporate areas, including telecommunications and financial services. . . . K-12 is not a big moneymaker but it’s a big branding opportunity.”

Investing in kids’ learning just isn’t very profitable in the business world. What’s the point of putting money into schools if there isn’t a return to investors? Gov. Kemp’s new education “teacher pipeline” initiative focuses on recruiting, preparing, mentoring and retaining the best and brightest in education.” But is that really how schools work?

I recently learned of a Georgia teacher who had lost two jobs with “nonrenewal” notifications. What sort of terrible teaching would result in two terminations, and why do schools keep hiring him?

The answer: He is a football coach who has been on two coaching staffs where the head coach got fired, and with him, his whole staff, so that the incoming coach could be surrounded by his guys. Just the way they do it in the pros and in college, where coaches don’t carry the encumbrance of a teaching load. It didn’t matter whether the old coaches, or the new ones, could teach or not.

What mattered was that they needed to keep the new head coach happy, and that meant dumping the old assistant coaches and bringing in the new, with a priority on their coaching, not their teaching.

Meanwhile, we all know who gets blamed when measures like test scores decline: the teachers. They are the ones buying their kids supplies, while the football team has cool uniforms at exorbitant cost. The ones who work overtime, during shutdowns and when in the building, to help kids stay on schedule without compensation. The ones who are micromanaged into intellectual oblivion by their administrators. The ones that you can’t have school without.

But they don’t score touchdowns. So what value are they?

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