Athletics vs. academics: Who gets to play?

January 18, 2000|By Susan Reimer

EARLIER THIS month, the Miami Herald revealed that five high schools were being investigated for inflating the grades of athletes to keep them eligible to play, and that officials had subpoenaed grade books and other records in a felony inquiry that conceivably could result in jail time.

The Herald also editorialized that "cheating off the field to keep players on the field is a terrible lesson."

But it strikes me that high school athletes get a lesson in that kind of duplicity every day.

Essentially, the adults who signed these kids up at age 5, saying that sports were good for them, are now saying that sports are only good for good students.

The same adults who promoted the intrinsic value of athletic competition are now saying that it is an honor to be earned only through diligent scholarship, that ninth-grade geometry is the pre-requisite for the lessons of teamwork, sportsmanship and self-discipline.

The same adults who insisted that every youngster get a spot on a team and equal playing time are now telling these same kids as high school students that they not only have to be talented enough to make a team, they have to be smart enough.

The same adults who say kids who participate in team sports are less likely to use alcohol, drugs, tobacco and engage in other high-risk or criminal activities are willing to cut these same kids loose at 2 p.m. because they aren't getting good grades.

What hypocrites we adults are. Is it any wonder kids don't listen to us?

High school students who participate in any extracurricular activities, from the senior class play to the basketball team, are almost universally required to meet minimum standards of classroom achievement. But the truth is, the kids who are caught in this net are almost always black male athletes.

The result of this well-intentioned policy is that the kids who are already at risk, the ones with bad grades and a mere toehold in school, are the ones who are barred from the arena in which they have experienced success -- athletics. And they are the ones who are deprived of the supervision, the codes of conduct, the achievement, the life lessons of sports.

The theory is that if you take away something they truly love to do, these kids will do what you want them to do in order to get it back. In this case, it is school work we want them to do. But any parent paying attention knows that tactic stopped working in about third grade.

The problem I see here is not that academics are given a higher priority than athletics or that participation in sports is used to motivate. Heck, I'd make cash payments if it would get my kids to do their school work.

The problem is that there are almost never any institutional safety nets in this policy. Few schools have any formal classes or programs to help the struggling athletes get back in the game.

I agree that every athlete -- every student -- should be making progress toward graduation, both in terms of grades and credit hours. To allow an athlete, or any student, to do less than that is a disservice to him.

But without a program in place to help him, he is being kept from doing something he loves and something that rewards and teaches him because of someone else's shortcomings.

I can see the potential for abuse here. A coach could field a team of a dozen 20-year-old semi-pros who never show up for any classes.

But that kind of stuff is too rare to be addressed by an over-reaching policy that is more likely to keep a sophomore in good standing off the wrestling team because he doesn't get chemistry. And unless he has the initiative to find a smart kid willing to tutor him during lunch, he is sunk because there is nothing else in place to help him.

"Think about it," says Doug DuVall, who has been coaching football at Wilde Lake High School for most of the school's 28-year history. "For the majority of kids, academic eligibility doesn't matter. They do fine. What it does is exclude the kids who need sports the most: the kids who need someone to push them along, who need some personal success, who need that positive interaction with others.

"It is true that if you raise the bar, most kids will raise their performance. But what if no one ever taught you how to high jump?"

If we truly believe that athletics are an integral part of the education process, why do we exclude some kids and not others?

If we think that sports are not essential, a diversion, some kind of glorified recess, why do high schools sponsor sports at all? Surely the money could be better spent in the classroom. Let the rec leagues and the volunteer coaches handle the sports.

If we believe that at-risk adolescents need structure, discipline and supervision, why are they the ones we cut loose?

If our kids are learning anything from sports, it is that adults don't know what we believe.

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