TRENDS IN SPORTS: Should Varsity Letters Be Awards to HS Students Who Compete in Non-Athletic Pursuits?

On my WFAN radio show last Sunday we had a spirited discussion on whether videogames – or e-games as they are known – should be considered as a new kind of HS sport.

Most of the debate centered on whether these very popular games should be classified as a sport…or simply as an activity.

The main point that was debated back and forth was whether to be a sport, there needed to be a real element of perspiration in the mix. After all, one of the underlying concerns about our kids playing videogames for hours on end is that a lack of physical exercise and exertion lends itself to all sorts of health issues as the kids get out of shape and heavier.

Personally, I felt there was a real growing wariness about sanctioning e-gaming as a legitimate HS sport when, in fact, this so-called sport not only does nothing for the youngster’s physical conditioning, —  but can actually be very detrimental to their health.

True, I guess you can make a case that playing a contact sport like football or ice hockey or field hockey can lead to concussions, which can also lead to long-term health issues as well. But for better or worse, in today’s world, traditional sports are seen as doing wonders for kids to stay in shape, whereas sitting in front of a computer screen is as seen as being damaging.

At the end of the show last week, there was no real definitive consensus. But it did give us pause about whether we should embrace e-gaming as a sport.

Let me give you an analogy:

For example, in a few states in the Midwest like Arkansas, bass fishing is considered to be a legitimate varsity sport. Now, I must confess that I have never been to, or witnessed, a HS bass fishing contest, but my initial reaction is that when you go fishing, you pretty much sit in a rowboat waiting for a fish to nibble on your line.

I guess there’s some physical activity involved in trying to reel the fish in. In fact, Doug Abrams points out with a laugh that most likely it’s only the fish that gets a true workout in these competitions.  And yes, I don’t suspect that kind of physical activity for the HS fisherman is the same as, say, running up and down a soccer field on a hot humid day… or putting on a full-court press in basketball….or running 400 meters at full speed in a heated HS race.

You get my point.

EARNING THAT VARSITY LETTER IN HS SPORTS

But as a follow-up to this topic of  what truly constitutes a varsity sport, I also wanted to discuss the awarding of varsity letters in HS.Now, one of the great traditions in American HS sports is for a youngster to earn a HS varsity letter.

I mean, this was a big, big deal when I was in HS, and from what I can gather, earning a varsity letter still remains something to honor and to cherish. You just don’t get a varsity letter for being on the roster. A youngster has have to log a certain amount of quality playing time – or at least that’s how it was set up when I was a kid.

In other words, you had to EARN your letter.

Now, I mention all of this because I came across a new law that was recently passed in NJ.

In short, the new law now says that any and all students who represent their HS in other extracurricular activities that compete against other schools should also be eligible to win a varsity letter for their efforts.

That could be for kids who are in the HS chess club…or competing in Robotics of the Mind….spelling bees….pretty much any extracurricular activity in which kids from one school are competing against kids from other schools.

In short, this expansion of eligibility for a HS varsity letter is a little different to be sure. Yes, I know that over the years that some school districts were giving out varsity letters on an ad hoc basis in order salute those kids who didn’t play sports but had talents in other areas and had obviously put time and effort into succeeding in these outlets.

Most of the calls this AM came in from those individuals who had been awarded varsity letters for anything from competing in history competitions to chess clubs to even ceramic competitions when they were in HS. They were indeed quite proud of their accomplishments, and felt strongly that this new law was not only a good move, but long overdue.

Other callers, however, asked poignant questions. To wit:

Is there a real and tangible difference between being on a HS varsity sports team….as opposed to being on a non-sports HS organization and being able to earn a varsity letter?

In other words, by opening the door to varsity letters for extracurricular activities, doesn’t that have the impact of cheapening or diluting the varsity letter?

In effect, does this new law in NJ simply add an extension of the age-old debate that “everybody gets a trophy” just for competing?

And what about the HS kids themselves? How do they feel about all of this?

Or is this just another case of trying to placate today’s parents who want to know how come their non-athletic (but talented) kids can’t earn a varsity letter?

For that matter, does achieving a varsity letter still carry the same feeling of singular accomplishment that it did, say, 15 or 20 years ago?

One caller, for example, said that he had graduated from Power Memorial HS back in the early 1970s when Power Memorial was a legendary school for athletics. He couldn’t make the basketball team (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was there then, as was Steve Kallas). So the caller went out for the school band, which, he pointed out, was quite a commitment as the band played all over NYC. In any event, in his senior year, after being in the school band for four years, he was awarded a varsity letter which was quite meaningful to him.

True, there was no competition against other schools, but the Power Memorial administration clearly wanted to salute him in some ways for his four years of dedicated commitment, and as such, I could see why giving him a varsity letter made a lot of sense.

Only the next few years will determine whether this new law will change things dramatically in terms of HS kids in NJ. In the end, it’s up to the HS kids and their parents whether earning a varsity letter in chess, or in science competitions, or in spelling bees is going to be a big deal for them.