This blog was written with Cathrine Himberg and Kevin Shephard.

“Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19” (CDC).

As the topic of social justice permeates sports media, a very obvious link to fostering this virtue seems to be going underrecognized: access to physical activity opportunities and quality physical education (QPE) that is standards and research-based, for all students. When a pandemic hits and disproportionately kills poor and minority citizens, we need to do better at advocating for long-term solutions that will work to change the status quo. Many of the pre-existing conditions and risk factors for COVID, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and Type II diabetes are preventable through active and healthy lifestyles. QPE can help social justice causes by teaching students the skills, tools, and concepts needed to prevent and manage these and other lifestyle diseases, as well as the stress, anxiety, and depression that can be the result of dealing in and with a world that is in need of vast improvements.

Although programs are routinely identified as shining examples of QPE, the funding and support across the country vary vastly and directly coincide with the socio-economic standings of the communities represented. Far too often communities with less support reflect an overwhelming sense of negative synergistic impacts: less access to (affordable) health care; less access to healthy food options; higher incidence of crime and danger interaction; and fewer safe places to be physically active. It’s hard enough dealing with one of these issues on their own let alone the various combinations. And these are just a few factors showing a lack of investment, unequal and untimely distribution of help, and a general nonchalant attitude toward seriously addressing the needs of the people and the communities they live in.

The holistic benefits of QPE ought to be fully understood by our closest allies in the world of sports and athletics, who should be and often are, natural advocates for QPE. And while they are currently involved in promoting physical activity, many don’t seem to fully understand or communicate its complexity. The message should be made clear to them: it’s in QPE where students learn the skills, tools, and concepts that help them take charge of their own physical and mental health for life. School visits and motivational speeches are appreciated but could be more effective in promoting the benefits and characteristics of QPE.

“Just shut up and dribble.”

The rise of the celebrity athletic “influencer” has been well chronicled. The influencing opportunities using social media are now becoming more apparent beyond just the marketing and financial rewards. New approaches in celebrity influence marketing, coupled with continued social media dominance, have led to a rise in athletes using their credibility to bring awareness to social justice issues. Society’s issues, ills, and injustices are endlessly pondered and contested through social media vehicles and lenses. An influencer has the “power” to cut through the social branding and messaging clutter with well-conceived and well-placed resolute calls for change. Their storytelling is steeped in authenticity and messages sent to others in similar situations have better chances of being perceived as “real” and taken to heart. A recent example was when NBA star LeBron James announced a collaboration in social justice change movements with other celebrity athletes and entertainers aimed at spotlighting injustices through peaceful gatherings and efforts.

Athletic “influencers” are uniquely qualified to demonstrate the importance of taking care of their bodies. They are seen as credible examples of routinely working the body out and can be believed when they evangelize the importance of achieving health and wellness benefits from physical activity. But do they understand what QPE can do? Do they get why standards-based QPE is a necessity, -a child’s right? And do they see how QPE can be an effective tool in helping to remedy major social justice issues? If celebrity athletes are made aware of the power of QPE to fight social justice in the long term, more of them may choose to join the call for QPE. When genuine partnerships are made great change can happen.

The physical education industry should double down on the need for continued public support for QPE that directly relates to health and psychological benefits needed during the pandemic, as well as the continued struggles inherent in the unequal distribution of education, opportunity, and resources. And if we want more athlete influencers to advocate for QPE, we have to help them understand why QPE advocacy is one effective way to fight for social justice. They need to at least know that:

  • A major barrier to physical activity is perceived competence and confidence in the activity. Research tells us we tend to participate in the things we enjoy and where we have a sense of competence and confidence. Only K-12 physical education can provide all students with sufficient skills and knowledge to be competent and confident so they can enjoy being active for life, and reap the benefits.
  • Getting students moving throughout the school day improves academic performance and student behavior outcomes. They learn and use complex skills that impact their ability to learn, focus, and pay attention. They also learn how to use physical activity to help reduce the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Self-management skills such as self-assessment, time management, and goal setting, are as important as physical skills and lead to increased participation in physical activity. When you learn how to overcome barriers as part of a QPE curriculum, you are prepared, even as life’s internal and external issues and hurdles surely appear.
  • Students in QPE programs are given opportunities to demonstrate and reflect on virtues like determination, perseverance, cooperation, respect, integrity, acceptance, justice, and resilience. The continued fight for social justice requires these and other virtues in developing and demonstrating a strong character that has energy for the follow-through.
  • SHAPE America’s National Standards and Grade level outcomes show the way. The fact that these standards are research-based and include meaningful outcomes for every grade level K-12 should not be a secret.

Our film “No Excuses!”, as relevant today as when the film was made 7 years ago, showed that QPE can happen anywhere when teachers are informed and supported. Filmed in Harlem, NY, the documentary featured celebrity athletes and companies related to physical activity. When the project started there was mostly just good-will, but soon sponsors came on board that helped make a much better outcome. SPARK generously supported the project and facilitated several connections with athlete-advocates, including most significantly Annika Sorenstam and her foundation. The idea was to make the best use of our allies in advocating for QPE. More recently, supportREALteachers and SPARK partnered with SPARTAN Races to help advocate for QPE through SPARTAN-focused online physical education lessons. That program demonstrated QPE to many parents who already understand and value the need to lead healthy lives, but may not yet see the important role QPE plays.

For those looking at how they can help society right now, advocating for QPE is an important area that you are unequally qualified for. Let’s be smart about how we use our allies in the sporting world to help advocate for QPE. As you go about your daily efforts of providing standards-based QPE, be clear about the importance of your work and teach your ally advocates what they need to know to help you and your students’ cause. All people, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status have the right to learn how to lead healthy lives. Thus, it makes sense to promote QPE as an essential part of social justice.

Appendix 1: Link to SPARK and SRT advocacy resources

Appendix 2: Research Studies on health disparities within minority communities

This blog was written with Cathrine Himberg and Kevin Shephard