School sports programs have long been a popular feature of the U.S. public education system—with students, parents, alumni, and community members among the loyal fans. In the most popular of high school sports—football—more than 1 million students participate each year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. It is clear that school athletic teams provide enjoyable, supervised activities for young people.

Yet, school sports sometimes have their detractors, with critics raising concerns about student athlete safety, equity of opportunities to participate, and the effects of participation on students’ academic achievement.

Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution, has summarized the evidence—both positive and negative—for participation in school sports as part of its DataBank, an online compendium of more than 100 key indicators of child and youth well-being.

On the positive side, Child Trends finds student athletes report healthier eating habits, higher levels of cardiovascular fitness, increased parental support, and decreased anxiety and depression. According to one national study, students participating in school sports reported lower rates of tobacco, drug, and alcohol use. Young people who participate in sports were also more likely to disapprove of their peers’ substance abuse.

In addition, participating in sports is associated with higher levels of self-esteem, motivation, and overall psychological well-being, and—for girls—improved body image. 

However, not all research efforts have found these positive relationships for all groups of youths. For example, some studies have reported higher rates of substance use among white male and black female athletes, as well as among males involved in male-dominated sports (such as football) and among females involved in out-of-school mixed-gender sports (such as skateboarding or dance).

In general, evidence shows that participation in athletics has a positive association with students’ academic achievement. Studies show that high school athletes have higher grades than nonathletes, as well as lower absentee levels, a significantly smaller percentage of discipline referrals, lower percentages of dropouts, and higher graduation rates.

Majority Participation 

So, who participates in school sports? The answer: a majority of students. Child Trends’ data, collected over more than 20 years, shows a fairly consistent pattern in which, at eighth grade, about two-thirds of students report they participated in school sports within the past 12 months. This percentage declines somewhat at 10th grade, and again at 12th grade—though it still remains above 50 percent (see Figure 1). 

Concerns persist about disparities in participation—by gender, socioeconomic status, and other student characteristics. In spite of marked progress in recent decades, girls are still less likely to participate in sports than boys. The gender gap is greatest (14 percentage points) at 12th grade and smallest at eighth grade (see Figure 2). 

Students whose parents have higher levels of education are more likely to participate in sports than those with less-educated parents. Participation also seems to be connected with students’ plans and aspirations: Among those who expect to complete four years of college, 62 percent participate in sports, compared with just 45 percent among students who do not plan to do so.

Other important issues of equity have been raised: For some families, transportation to and from school sports activities can be difficult to arrange; for others, requirements for special sports equipment or uniforms may impose a high financial burden. Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender may shy away from participation if they believe they will experience harassment or other forms of abuse.

“Selection Effects”

Rigorous evaluation of the role that sports participation plays in promoting positive youth development remains a challenge. One obstacle is termed “selection effects”—the idea that the students who choose (or are chosen) to participate in sports may have characteristics (for instance, high motivation and self-discipline) that already set them apart from nonparticipants—which could account for the associations we see between sports and positive outcomes.

Most research studies on this topic are cross-​sectional in design—that is, they look at results at a single point in time, rather than longitudinally (over time). This makes it much more difficult to determine either the direction of causality (does sports participation result in better outcomes for students, or are students with better outcomes more likely to participate in sports?), or to disentangle the many other factors that are related to good physical and mental health and academic success. Of course, these are the kinds of issues that bedevil studies, not only of sports participation, but of many other extracurricular activities as well.

All signs suggest that school sports will remain an activity that can, under the right circumstances, convey significant benefits to participants. It is important, however, that organizers ensure that all students who wish to participate in school sports are met with options that are responsive to a full range of needs and interests. 

David Murphey, PhD, is research fellow and director of the Child Trends DataBank in Philadelphia.