High School Sports, Performing Arts Can Play Role in Healing Our Nation

Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff, NFHS Executive Director


            Never before has high school sports and performing arts been so poised to make a difference in our nation. Two days removed from remembering the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to combat racism in the United States, and on the very day of the inauguration of the 46th president of our country, we are reminded of the work ahead and the ways our education-based programs can play a role in healing.

            Respect for one another, appreciation for each person’s background and a willingness to work together for the good of everyone are goals that should be equally shared by our nation’s leaders and everyone involved in the greatest education programs in our country – high school sports and performing arts. 

            The 51 state high school associations that are members of the NFHS, and the 19,500-plus high schools that are a part of these associations have been working tirelessly to offer sports and performing arts this year amid the pandemic.

Our nation’s youth want – and need – these programs. They want to be a part of a team, working together to achieve success. It is in these education-based programs where high school students learn sportsmanship and citizenship.

While one to three percent of those participating in high school sports will play at the next levels, that is not the emphasis of these programs. Instead, participants learn how to be accountable, how to win – and lose – graciously, and how to be leaders who have a solid concept of right and wrong as citizens of our country.

Communities throughout our nation desperately need high school sports and performing arts. Sometimes, we do not realize the value of everyday experiences until they are gone. As we work through the overall healing process from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as from social and political unrest that was ever present in 2020, we are looking ahead anxiously to the day that gyms and stadiums and auditoriums will be packed again with fans supporting their local high school teams.

Perhaps even bordering on a Pollyanna mindset, we believe high school sports and performing arts can pump renewed life into communities as the vaccine distribution intensifies this year and the pandemic diminishes. In cities and towns from 100 people to 100,000, high school sports, just as they were 50 years ago, are a vital part of the heartbeat of these communities.

From the 1,605 schools in California and the 1,485 schools in Texas, to the 57 schools in Rhode Island and 72 schools in Wyoming – and all sizes in between – the 12 million-plus participants in high school sports and performing arts don’t think about owning their talent, which is becoming a part of the college landscape. Instead, they think about offering their talent to be part of a team effort.

In many of those cities and towns across the country, local radio stations remain some of the most effective advocates of high school sports and performing arts. And the NFHS, along with many of our state associations and the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, are once again working with radio stations to air messages about the values of these education-based programs.

Since 2012, many radio stations have been involved in this effort and have aired 30- and 60-second spots on the values of high school sports – for FREE. Managers of radio stations in cities and towns of all sizes have consistently aired these commercials because they believe in the content. They believe in promoting high school sports and performing arts. They believe high school sports resonates with residents in their communities.  

Today, six digital public-service announcements on the “Values of High School Sports,” “Participation in Sports and Performing Arts,” “Equality and Inclusion,” “Mental Health” and “Sportsmanship” are being distributed to state associations and radio stations nationwide. Last year, the value of the PSAs aired was $7.6 million, and in the nine years of the program, the amount is $59.8 million.

WRLE Radio in Dunnellon, Florida, said, “We love being supportive of this cause,” and Network Indiana Emmis Broadcasting in Indianapolis, Indiana, said, “The PSAs promoting high school sports have been warmly received by both listeners and affiliate partners.”

We offer a huge “thank you” to these stations and hundreds of others for promoting these programs in their local communities.

While high school activity programs provide the setting, we encourage your support for the millions of student participants as they progress through the steps of healing this year. The pandemic may cause us to reassess how we conduct business in some settings going forward, but one thing that must not change is fans in the stands, gyms and auditoriums in communities nationwide, supporting high school students in education-based sports and performing arts.

Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is in her third year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.

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