Doing the right thing on school work, sports


August 11, 1996|By Norris West

ON MY VISITS to public schools over the years, I've routinely asked students how many of them expect to play professional sports.

Invariably, half the hands of the classroom's male population shoot skyward. Most of my unscientific surveys have been at elementary and middle school, but I'm guessing that the response from high school students wouldn't be much different.

Many children dream of becoming the next sports legend -- and that's fine. Dreams often help to sustain reality. Besides, have you ever tried telling a 14-year-old who can stick three-pointers that he'll never play in the NBA? Or even big-time college ball?

But many student-athletes don't realize they're approaching the end of their sports careers. Only a few county high school athletes will play college sports and probably none will ever earn a paycheck for their athleticism.

Of the 900 graduating seniors who play sports in Howard County, only 12 to 20 of them will receive scholarships to Division I schools. A few others will play as walk-ons for smaller colleges, but they'll have to pay their own tuition, room and board.

"For the most part, you've got 800 students who [have] finished competition for the rest of their lives," says Don Disney, the school system's coordinator of athletics.

He adds, "We are not the minor leagues for college."

Athletics are an important part of the high school experience. They help round out scholastic life, they provide a healthy outlet for energetic students and they give athletes a taste of glory while performing before adoring crowds for a few precious years. After that comes preparation for careers in work environments where every move won't be celebrated by chants from the bleachers and the adulation of cheerleaders.

Disney and other schools officials are moving to keep sports in their proper place, as part of the high school experience that comes second to the classroom.

With their proposal to toughen academic requirements for anyone participating in extracurricular activities, administrators would send an unequivocal message that students who play sports are student-athletes, not athlete-students.

The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal Aug. 22. If it votes "yes," the policy would be the toughest in the Baltimore metropolitan area, requiring students to pass every subject and maintain at least a 2.0 average to remain eligible to play sports or perform in the school band or write for the school newspaper. The requirements, of course, are aimed at athletes and not debate team members, although student-athletes average a 3.0 grade.

If I were a board member, I would vote for the proposal in a heartbeat. I don't usually go for rigid policies accompanied by annoying sound bites, like "three strikes and you're out." The Howard County proposal dubbed "no pass, no play," sounds just as awful, but it would whip sluggish athletes into academic shape.

Surprisingly, the county's PTA leaders oppose the policy, arguing that the strict rule would cause some students to avoid difficult courses.

But if students receive proper counseling, they will take courses they can handle. They will pass every subject if they attend class and do the work. That's why I like this policy -- linebackers will be forced to hit the books just as hard for every course as they hit the opposing quarterback in every game.

A coach's concerns

Wilde Lake High football coach Doug Duvall opposes the policy because he sincerely believes it will hurt disadvantaged children who leave home without breakfast and have a difficult time finding a place to study.

Duvall has other concerns: Children who fail one class no longer would be able to regain eligibility by improving that grade in midseason or summer school and one poor grade would have an enormous impact on a student's grade-point average in the four-course schedule used by most county high schools.

His heart is in the right place. The highly successful football coach has shown over the years that he cares about how his students perform in the classroom as well as on the field.

However, the children Duvall is concerned about would benefit most from this proposed change. These are the children who fail to take advantage of the state's best public school system, whether because they're neglecting classwork and homework or skipping class.

Some have problems at home, but the difficulties faced by children in East Columbia pale in comparison to those in East Baltimore. They were led to the water of opportunity when they enrolled in Howard County schools; this policy will get them to drink.

The rule change also would force coaches to take a stronger role. Duvall, for one, does not expect his team to suffer if the proposal is adopted, despite his opposition. "I'm not losing anybody," says Duvall, who runs study hall sessions for players struggling with academics. "I don't care what we have to do."

If other coaches adopt this attitude, even grudgingly, Howard's student-athletes can't lose.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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