The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world in which its schools, from the secondary level through the university level, sponsor what amounts to professional athletics. This reality reflects a set of values that has long placed physical skills in America above cognitive skills; winning over learning.
The U.S. was not founded by scholars, philosophers, artists, writers, and such, but by farmers, trappers, miners, track layers, canal diggers, and such. The latter were not widely interested in their children acquiring a formal education, especially the kind of education favored by European élites. Instead, they were interested in their children acquiring the kind of skills that would protect them from starvation, and the kind of skills that would keep them from losing their scalp.
If we couple this survival-based mindset with the anti-intellectual attitude that many early settlers brought to the New World with them, the marginalization of intellectuals (eggheads, geeks, Eineys) in America begins to make perfect sense. So, too, do million-dollar, state-of-the-art high-school stadiums; embarrassingly high-paid coaches; sexual, social, and academic double-standards for athletes; sporting extravaganzas held on school nights; and, of course, the largely unacknowledged joke the term ‘student athlete’ has become.
Once upon a time, all school-based sports were both local and universal; that is, they were intramural and they involved every able-bodied student. (My great aunt played basketball back in the early 1900s.) As in the Athens of Aristotle, sports were part of a larger regime designed to perfect the whole of each person. And for a while, a relatively brief while to be sure, this regime worked well. But then, given the context in which universal exercise attempted to fulfill its mission, school-based sports soon took on a life of their own. In short, they were co-opted by a mindset and attitude that, as in the example of the cosmic microwave background radiation, has persisted into every corner of the American universe.