NWA Times 21 Feb 2010
Consequences of Fayetteville's Football Culture.
This column has always been focused on the cultural habits that underlie current events. You can see them all at physics.uark.edu/hobson/. Today's column returns to the recent decision on Fayetteville High School in order to correct the historical record concerning a major cultural issue: football.
I sincerely respect and thank Fayetteville's school board for their hard work, their civic-mindedness, and for dealing with difficult characters like me, but they've distorted the record concerning the influence of football on their decision to build one high school rather than two. This distortion appeared most recently in Tim Hudson's Commentary in the January 25 Northwest Arkansas Times, where it was claimed that the question of preserving Fayetteville's 7A (large-school) football status had nothing to do with the one-school decision.
As philosopher George Santayana put it, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Let's look at history.
According to the December 24, 2006 Times, at the school board's December input session for business leaders "the participants heavily favored the new high school. They also were opposed strongly to the prospect of Fayetteville's athletic classification getting lowered if a second school was built." Associate Superintendent Randy Willison, who attended the majority of the input sessions, stated that many people who wanted one new school cited not having to change athletic classifications.
A lengthy January 22, 2007 Times article cited not only parents and residents but also school officials supporting one school in order to retain 7A status. Assistant Superintendent Dick Johnson said that, although athletics shouldn't be the deciding factor, athletics are important to a school's success. He questioned whether the longer travel to more distant 6A games would be in students' best interests. This issue of team travel to distant games was brought up several times, and indeed Tim Hudson brings it up again in his recent article. It's a bogus issue; as compared with two schools, the additional passenger-miles involved in driving all students, every day, to a single centralized school far exceed the additional passenger-miles involved in driving to more distant games.
High school principal Jim Price said that athletic programs shouldn't be a primary factor, but that they cannot be ignored. "It is a factor," he said. He noted there's a rivalry tradition between Fayetteville and some of the nearby schools such as Springdale that would be difficult to do away with. The article also cited a school-board-sponsored discussion blog that included many citizen comments supporting one school because of the 7A status.
The Times summarized all of this in an editorial on January 25, 2007 whose headline "A big factor: Sports was a part of the high school decision" says it all. The article states that "It's unthinkable to believe high school athletics (specifically, high school football) wouldn't be factored into the future."
Indeed, given that a large fraction of the business community, many parents, many other residents, and even some school officials considered retention of the vaunted 7A classification to be a strong argument for one school, it was impossible for the school board to prevent this issue from influencing its decision. Even if no school board members took the 7A classification directly into account, the school board must take public opinion into account and that opinion was strongly influenced by football. The vote, on February 22, 2007, was a bare 4-3 majority in favor of a single school, with Tim Hudson, Tim Kring, and John Delap voting for two schools.
Football clearly had a lot to do with the one-school decision. In view of the one-vote margin, the vote could easily have gone the other way were it not for the 7A classification issue. This is not how it should be in a nation that values education. The mistake however lies not primarily with the school board but rather with those in Fayetteville who allowed such a peripheral issue as football to influence their opinion on this important educational decision. The school board's only mistake was to insist that football had no influence on the decision, when actually that influence was huge.
We need to keep athletics in perspective. Football is not about the fans' honor or manhood. It's only a game, folks.