Leaving home for the court

home school basketball tournamentIf you are part of a family that homeschools its children and is religious, The New York Times is your friend Sunday morning. The newspaper’s sports section has a nice news/feature story on last week’s national homeschool basketball tournament in Oklahoma City, and for once, the story doesn’t take the “zoo approach” toward homeschooling. (As a disclaimer, my 15-year-old sister played in this basketball tournament this past week.)

What I mean by the “zoo approach” is when a reporter sees a homeschooled family or organization of homeschool families and reports and writes about them as if they are covering an odd new species at the local zoo. Everything they do is considered suspect and strange. Their successes, whether it is spelling bees or starting higher education at age 14, needs extra explaining, prodding and poking around.

This story takes a different approach that seeks out the positives and finds the success stories among the stay-at-home high school basketball players. The story also appropriately highlights the religious aspect of this tournament right in the lead:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Taber Spani, one of the best high school girls basketball players in the nation, holds hands with two opponents as a coach reads a Bible verse. It is the way each game in the National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships begins.

This is more than a postseason tournament for the 300 boys and girls teams from 19 states that have competed here over the past six days. As the stands packed with parents and the baselines overrun by small children attest, this is also a jamboree to celebrate faith and family.

“You build friendships here with other girls who know what it’s like to be self-motivated and disciplined and share your values,” said Spani, a junior who plays for the Metro Academy Mavericks of Olathe, Kan. “I wouldn’t trade this tournament for anything.”

Only a decade ago, home-school athletics was considered little more than organized recess for children without traditional classrooms. Now, home-school players are tracked by scouts, and dozens of them have accepted scholarships to colleges as small as Blue Mountain in Mississippi and as well known as Iowa State.

I can’t help but wonder if this story was influenced by the recent California homeschooling case. Are homeschool scholars becoming more sympathetic to journalists as a result?

The story also nicely highlights some of the challenges homeschool families have when it comes to extracurriculars like basketball and how things have changed recently thanks to the growth of homeschooling. I’ve always been curious as to why basketball seems to be the sport of choice for homeschoolers, but that’s probably an issue for a longer more features-oriented article.

From a sports perspective, I found the article rather soft, and its claims a bit unconvincing. A quick reading of this story, and you’d think this tournament was a powerhouse tournament that all college recruiters attend. I don’t doubt there are talent players there, but not every player in this tournament is considering college scholarship offers to play for Tennessee’s Pat Summit. But this is not the first time a bit of hype has slipped into the sports pages.

The religion angle continues throughout the piece, and it rightly points out that many of these families choose to teach their children at home for religious reasons:

“Our Christian faith is No. 1 why we did it,” Gary Spani said of why he and Stacey chose to home-school their children. “We’re team oriented, and we wanted to make sure our family was supporting one another. We also agreed that when our daughters reached eighth grade, we’d let them decide if they wanted to go to high school.”

But that’s only half the story. As the accompanying audio slide-show points out, many people homeschool because they are tired of dealing with the problems that can come with the public schools.

Overall, the straightforward nature of this story is refreshing but probably not that unexpected from a sports reporter. I would be curious to see how this type of story would have turned out if it went through the newspaper’s national desk, or The Washington Post style section.

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  • Michael

    It’s ironic that a coach in the National CHRISTIAN Homeschool league goes out of the way to toss in anecdotes about hypothetical non-Christian homeschoolers in order to argue that homeschoolers aren’t predominately Christians, despite all evidence to the contrary. Over 70 percent of homeschoolers identify religion or morals as a reason for homeschooling. While “morals” can be broad, arguably, it’s hard to get past the evidence that homeschooling–and especially organized homeschooling and their leadership organizations–are predominately Christian. I mean, look at the name.

    It would be interesting to see some journalism on this issue, to examine the assumptions on both ends. How Christian is the homeschooling movement? Is it as diverse as supporters say or is it as Christians as most people assume? We hear lots of anecdotes about diversity–usually given by Christians and religious conservatives–but not much digging beyond that.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I have a couple of off-the-cuff theories about why basketball may be popular among homeschoolers: it’s easy to practice by yourself or with smallish groups; many churches have open-access basketball courts; and a team can be formed with a relatively small number of kids (compared to, say, football or baseball). Since the homeschooling parents I know look for extracurricular activities that bring their kids together with other homeschoolers, maybe also a team sport like basketball is more attractive than solo sports like running.

  • Stoo


    It would be interesting to see some journalism on this issue, to examine the assumptions on both ends


  • Chris Bolinger


    The NYT feature story is “nice” and relatively balanced, but it’s thin.

    This is more than a postseason tournament for the 300 boys and girls teams from 19 states that have competed here over the past six days.

    19 states! Six days! How many kids who play hoops in public schools or private schools have the opportunity to play in a weeklong, multistate tourney? Try none. The article only scratches the surface on how difficult it must have been to organize such a tournament or what motivates people to spend thousands of dollars and travel hundreds or thousands of miles to the event when they can get strong competition from AAU ball in their own back yards. My guess is that it’s the only opportunity for many of these athletes to get a shot at being seen by a college recruiter.

    Now, home-school players are tracked by scouts, and dozens of them have accepted scholarships…

    Dozens? How many basketball scholarships do U.S. colleges and universities dole out each year? Can we have a little perspective here? While the story implies that most colleges and universities look at home-schooled athletes, the reality is that few do.

    An estimated two million children are schooled at home, and only 18 states have laws that grant them access to athletic teams at public schools.

    Why so few? The story didn’t explore this topic at all.

    In 1992, Tom Sanders bought some reversible jerseys and founded the Homeschool Christian Youth Association Warriors in Houston so his 14-year-old son could play organized basketball with his friends. He had to plead with small Christian schools, even reform schools, to schedule 14 games that season.

    I’ll bet he did. I’ll also bet that most readers have no idea how huge an undertaking his was and how amazing what he his accomplishment is. Again, the story provides no perspective.

    As with most home-school groups, it was built on word of mouth and financed out of parents’ pockets and the occasional bake sale.

    Sorry, but an occasional bake sale is not going to bring in enough money to do anything meaningful. This is a deliberately cheeky comment.

    …fielding a home-school team remained an independent and often taxing endeavor. Rounding up opponents is a grind, as is raising as much as $20,000 annually for uniforms, renting gyms and traveling to tournaments.

    The occasional bake sale…right.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam


    I’d have to agree with you that it’s a pretty thin story, especially for being on the NYT front page, which I didn’t realize until after I had posted this. I spent a few minutes shuffling through the sports section until I stumbled upon it on the front page.

  • Deanna in CO


    SO WHAT if most homeschoolers are Christian? I have personally read blogs, blog comments and forum conversations from many homeschoolers who are not Christian – just google “evolved homeschooling” if you want to read some of those – but what difference does it really make? Should people not be allowed to educate their children at home if they happen to be Christians?

    I am a Christian, but I don’t homeschool because of that. I started homeschooling my preschool daughter because she had already mastered all the skills most kids learn in Kindergarten by the time she was 3 1/2. I figured I could keep her busy – and out of trouble in school – by teaching her at home for the first couple of years. Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that the more she learned at home, the farther ahead of her peers she grew. Now, at age 11, she recently wrote a thorough, well developed 8-page paper on the history of medicine (something many high school seniors can’t do); she’s reading the 500-page novel, Christy, on her own time; and she is on track to complete the pre-algebra course she started in January by the end of this school year. Not only that, she is finishing her two-year junior high science course in one year (remember, she’s 11 – her peers are still attending our local elementary school); she knows more than I do about ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Middle East; she recently directed a multi-week film project in her weekly homeschool enrichment program; and she has more friends than she can keep up with.

    On the other hand, my younger daughter has struggled with reading (though she is equally bright in other areas). In school, she’d have been labeled a year or two ago and stuck in the lower level reading group, and she would feel stupid. Instead, she’s had the time she needed to mature, and has gone from basically not reading at the beginning of second grade to almost on grade level 7 months later – and she’s happy, healthy, and self-confident.

    I also homeschool because I’ve done enough reading from secular anti-school forces (including John Taylor Gatto) to realize that school generally does more harm than good. Artificial rewards, peer pressure, a locked-in sense of right and wrong, the requirement that you keep pace with the other 30 or so kids in your class (feeling dumb if you’re behind and twiddling your thumbs if you’re ahead), poor teaching methodology, mindless textbooks and incredible amounts of busywork, the discouragement of original thinking – all these combine to create what schools were originally designed to create – passive, docile workers who do what they are told without making trouble. Sorry, but that’s NOT what I want for my children. I want my girls to be strong, healthy, self-confident, creative, thoughtful, outgoing, and intelligent; I just don’t see the schools producing a lot of people like that.

    So what difference does it make that I happen to be a Christian as well as a homeschooler, really? Do you think I should put my children in school? Do you discount the real reasons I homeschool, just because I’m a Christian too? And even if I DID homeschool for “religious reasons,” what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t I have the right to educate my children in the way I believe is best? After all, freedom of religion is one of our fundamental rights as Americans – why shouldn’t parents be free to exercise religious beliefs that concern the education of their children?

  • http://www.reenchantment.net Ken

    During the dust up over the recent Appelate court case in California affecting home school families, I found myself remembering another court case years ago in which two basketball stars from a southern college were suing the school for breach of contract. I can’t recall what happened but their claim was that they had played basketball as stipulated in the scholarship, but the school hadn’t taught them or required them to learn anything.

    Well, it’s not a school’s responsibility that you learn. Schools put it out there for students and let them go for it.

    During the years our kids were in school which included parochial high school, one thing I noticed was the emphasis on sports. At a girl’s tennis banquet a father stood up to alert his daughter’s team mates that Emma Lou was going to Stanford on a scholarship and tennis could be their gate pass too.

    The world is unarguably concentrated on sports.

    Notwithstanding the socialization and health aspects of exercise and sports, too many parents are secretly wanting a way to reduce the freight on that college education expense. And it seems at odds with their “love of learning” mantra that these parents too may be using sports as the ticket.

    Colleges still offer stipends for music group participation and the old standby, good grades.

    All that being said, the effort by persons who organized this tournament and who do these kinds of things with kids is quite amazing.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Ken, academic scholarships only scratch the surface of the costs of most private colleges and universities. In contrast, an athletic scholarship at a D1 university is a full ride (usually for four years). It’s economics. Many parents who home-school can’t afford private school and certainly can’t afford a private college or university, even if academic scholarships take away some of the bite.

    Many parents of public schoolers whom I know want their kids to play on travel teams for soccer, basketball, etc. so that the kids have a better chance of being selected for the junior high teams, which gives them a better chance of being selected for the high school teams, which gives them a chance to become starters, shine for the college scouts, and get the full rides. Yes, the parents start planning for the D1 scholarships when the kids are eight or nine years old. And if the high school in your school district is not successful in your sport of choice, you move or enroll the kid in a high-profile private school.