Football vs. Music: This is About Winning
Written by John Gerdy

“Why are you bashing football?” That’s a question I’ve been asked quite often, dating back the publication my book, Sports: The All-American Addiction in 2002. And the frequency of being asked that question has multiplied since the recent publication of “Ball or Bands: Football vs. Music as an Educational and Community Investment.”


I’d like to set the record straight.


This isn’t about bashing football. And it’s not about tearing down athletics. In fact, it’s hardly about athletics at all.


This is about education.


And it is about winning.


It’s about winning what is one of our nation’s most important battles. Specifically, it’s about the “game” of effectively preparing our children to compete in today’s increasingly competitive global economy and world community. It is about making certain that every educational resource at our disposal performs at its maximum level of efficiency and effectiveness, including extracurricular activities such as football and music.


The importance of winning is something that every coach, athletic administrator, and sports fan fully understands. Every coach knows that to win, it is imperative that they continually work at evaluating players as to their ability and effectiveness in contributing to the team’s overall goal of winning. Coaches also understand that a player’s relative value to the team’s success can increase or decrease as competitive circumstances (level of competition, style of play, etc.) change. Based on those factors, a coach will award playing time. In other words, coaches invest in and allot the most playing time to those athletes who contribute the most to the team’s overall goal of winning.


We live in a world of rising standards and expectations regarding what constitutes an education worthy of the 21st century. Schools have to meet these rising standards in an environment of declining resources. It is critical that our educational system responds to these challenges because American children are no longer guaranteed the best jobs in the world. Today, American children will be competing against children from all over the world for the best jobs of the future.


In short, our educational system is in an extremely competitive contest to prepare our children to succeed in the increasingly competitive, interrelated global economy and the world community and, in the process, to keep America economically strong and vibrant. This is a high stakes contest. It is a contest we must win. And the definition of “winning” is schools that demand and produce educational excellence and academic achievement.


So, not unlike a coach who continually evaluates the effectiveness and efficiency of each of his or her players in contributing to the overall goal of winning games, community, and educational leaders, as well as parents, must continually evaluate every component of the educational process and system for academic effectiveness and efficiency.


Similar to a coach reducing the playing time of an athlete whose contribution to the team’s overall success has diminished in favor of another player whose contribution to the team’s success has increased, so too must we evaluate and act accordingly in the case of the contribution of extracurricular activities to the academic mission of the institution.


That is what Ball or Bands are about. Like a coach who evaluates each of his or her players, assessing their relative strengths and weaknesses and determining who provides the best opportunity to win games, I did the same assessment and evaluation of two educational “team members” (football programs and music programs) to determine which provides the best opportunity to help our schools win the game of providing our children a world-class education.


So here’s the challenge. If during the process we find that either of these activities is successfully meeting its educational purposes, will we have the vision to invest more heavily in it? But what if one or the other is not? What if it is determined that investment in one or the other as an extracurricular activity brings a greater return on the educational dollar invested? What should our school boards do? What should we as parents and tax-paying citizens, do? Will we have the courage to make what may be very difficult and unpopular decisions?


The results of my assessment, an evaluation that incorporated not only anecdotal evidence derived from years of experience in both fields but also hard data and research is outlined in Ball or Bands. It is an honest and clear-eyed assessment. And these are the results.


There are several areas, such as student engagement and the development of positive character traits such as discipline, team(band)work, personal responsibility, and their respective capacities to bring people together to build community, where both football and music provide similarly positive impacts. For example, there is little, if any, the difference between the sacrifices made, lessons learned, and effort required as a member of a team with the goal of winning games and of a member of a band working to achieve a particular sound.


But from there, the similarities mostly end. When considering the broadest, most effective impact over the longest period of time, from an educational return on dollars invested, music programs are far superior to football programs.


From music’s capacity to be a life long participatory learning activity (for all but a select few, football ends after high school) to the fact that it is the universal language (football is uniquely American), to its inclusiveness (everyone, versus only boys, can participate), to far lower cost per student ratio to the potential it offers as a platform for international and interdisciplinary studies (essential for a modern-day education), to its effectiveness in strengthening brain neural activity and development (versus the possibility, if not likelihood, of sustaining brain trauma). And finally, sports’ effectiveness as an educational tool has been steadily decreasing as it has become more about the end result (winning) and less about the process (education).


In fact, the relative value and effectiveness of music versus football as an educational tool is so dramatic, that if we were scoring it like a football game, it would be a rout, with a final score of Music 52 and Football 14.


Yes, the differences are that stark.


Here’s another way to look at it. If I was one of two captains choosing up sides to play and win a pick-up basketball game and had the first choice, I’d choose the player who gives my team the best chance of winning the game. If the game is education and the goal is to build the best school system to achieve the goal of providing our children with a world-class education and the choice was between building my school around a first-rate football program versus a first-rate music program, the choice would be absolutely crystal clear. Investing in music programs is infinitely more likely to contribute to the goals of educational excellence and preparing our children to compete successfully in the twenty-first-century economy and world community than investing in a football program.


Granted, in a perfect world, all extracurricular activities would be fully funded. But with politicians and education leaders making it perfectly clear that for the foreseeable future education funding will be significantly reduced, it’s painfully clear that we no longer live in a perfect world. That being the case, school districts will be forced to engage in the very difficult debate regarding how to allocate increasingly scarce extracurricular dollars. In such an environment, the fundamental question is which extracurricular activities garner the best educational return on investment?


So this really isn’t about bashing football. It is about education. And it is about winning.


Despite the fact that some of the answers found in Ball or Bands may be uncomfortable or inconvenient, we should welcome this discussion and analysis because, if we approach it honestly, the end result will be better schools serving our children and communities more effectively. In the end, isn’t that what we all want and what our nation needs?