School Sports vs Real Life



WASHINGTON — Washington.--They had a big pep rally in the gym at J.J Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas, to send their team off to the finals. Cheerleaders did stunts, confetti was tossed, even teachers got into the act -- and it must have worked: for the fifth time in the last eight years, Pearce came home a winner.

Knowing that much, you will assume that Pearce is an athletic powerhouse, and Richardson another football-mad Texas town like the one portrayed by H.G. Bissinger in "Friday Night Lights."

His book is fact, not fiction, about Permian High of Odessa, in West Texas oil country. Permian plays in a multi-million-dollar stadium with a two-story press box, VIP booths and a full-time caretaker. It routinely spends $20,000 to charter jets to fly its football team to games far across the state. It spends more for rushed film prints of games for its coaches than it does on teaching materials for the English department. It is often in contention for the state championship.

Pearce High has a football team, too. A couple of years ago, it went to the playoffs. But the most talked-about team at Pearce this year, its most consistent winner, is national champion in the academic decathlon. Not only did it get a pep-rally send-off to the finals in Los Angeles, it will be honored by all the local politicians at an assembly week after next.

The diligent few who make the academic decathlon team at Pearce get letter jackets like those worn by varsity athletes. Two teachers coach the team, which begins with about 20 members in the fall. Only nine make the first string for interscholastic competition.

In a way it is unfair to compare Permian to Pearce. One is in a working man's town with a sizable percentage of minority students, while the other is in a well-to-do, heavily white suburb of Dallas, where parents demand solid preparation for college.

But more than simple dollars and privilege are at work, in these two schools and others like them across the nation. It's less a matter of money than of priorities, which are set by consumer demand.

Permian does not have an upscale property-tax base, yet it finds the funds to support an expensive and successful football program. Pearce has competitive athletic teams, too. But at Pearce, the parents want more than that.

It is not surprising for educated taxpayers to demand better education for their children, while the less educated are happy to cheer a dominating football team. But this is a self-perpetuating process; the school that prides itself on education helps maintain the advantages of its graduates, while the one that sacrifices education for athletics denies its students the chance to lift themselves economically and socially.

We are dreaming if we expect educationally underprivileged parents to broaden their childrens' horizons. It is not going to happen in those homes, and it is not going to happen on the football field. The critical link, where childrens' expectations can be raised, is the classroom.

Especially at a school where everything revolves around football, the duty of teachers and educators is to insist that other things matter more. Most students, after all, are not varsity athletes -- and most varsity athletes will end their athletic careers when they graduate. An infinitesimal percentage will ever make a living playing games.

Coaches of championship athletic teams are celebrities. They are paid more than teachers of English or math; often they work much harder to earn it. The lessons of teamwork and self-confidence that they teach will serve a young man all his life. But the particular skills they teach are useless in real life.

In real life, men and women must know how to learn, for life is one long education. The skills taught in the classroom, the curiosity awakened there, is far more valuable than knowing how to check off signals at the line of scrimmage. And although they are seldom celebrities, when academic teachers do their jobs conscientiously they have much more reason for satisfaction than athletic directors have when they look back over their careers.

I could hear that in the voice of Linda Berger, one of those who has coached the Pearce High team to win the nationwide academic decathlon five times. She came with the team to be congratulated by the president at the White House the other day. Obviously, that was a special experience.

But back home in Richardson, she seemed more excited by learning the theme of the coming year's competition -- ecology and the environment. All the testing, in literature, fine arts, sociology, across the board, will focus on that subject. She can't wait for practice to start.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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