Any pretense that this country values academics more than sports was exposed by the closing of University High School in Florida not long ago. The on-line school charged $399.00 to high school athletes who were in academic difficulty to help them graduate. As it happened at University High School there were no classes or instructors, tests were open-book, and A’s and B’s flowed like water over a dam. But the athletes graduated and many went on to college: the colleges and the NCAA accepted those grades without question until the scam was blown open and became public knowledge. As the New York Times reported on the Florida debacle:
Twenty-eight high school athletes sent University High School transcripts to the N.C.A.A. eligibility clearinghouse in the past few years, according to a University of Tennessee report. The New York Times identified 14 who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.
This is only one of numerous instances of skewed priorities. For example, the Chicago public schools recently discovered that one of the schools in their district (which shall go unnamed) was doctoring the grades of high school basketball players in order to help them get into the colleges of their choice — to play basketball. Then there’s the suspension of the “no pass, no play” rule in Fairfield, Alabama recently where we are told that “The Fairfield Board of Education, at the urging of its new acting superintendent, voted [4 to 1] this morning to formally suspend a controversial no-pass, no-play policy for athletes and other students in extracurricular activities.” This suspension allows students to participate in extra-curricular activities whether or not they are passing their courses. The suspension was demanded by parents who thought their kids were being denied a chance to participate in sports. (I thought this was a joke since it has been the subject of several panels of the comic “Tank McNamara” recently. Sad to say, it’s not.)
But the problem goes deeper than a determination to look the other way in order to let the kids play sports. It begins in the home: I trace the basic problem to parents and teachers at all levels kowtowing to the whims of the kids themselves, most of whom don’t have any idea about what they need to be successful in a complex and changing world. The idea is to grease the skids, to make things as easy and painless as possible for kids who would really rather be playing video games. The undue emphasis we place on sports in the schools is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is generally known that there are troubling problems in the schools — at all levels; it is especially disturbing to realize that there are folks out there in the schools who have decided that academics really aren’t all that important (or they bow to parental pressure). I am not dissing sports. On the contrary, I feel that sports are one of the few places in this culture where young people learn discipline by being asked to do things they don’t want to do, where failure is part of the deal (just like life), and young people are actually encouraged to place something ahead of themselves — at least when sports are properly conducted. But the exceptions to the rules are disquieting as are the deeper problems in the schools where coherence seems to be lacking and rigor and excellence in the classroom have been replaced by a dumbed-down curriculum that allows no child to be left behind — and athletes to slide by.
If we are ever to right the ship and get education back into its proper place in this culture, we must expose such violations of principle whenever they occur and we must make a determined effort to place education at the top of our list or priorities instead of near the bottom where it sits at present. That means paying the teachers what they are worth, ridding the public schools of bogus certification requirements from outside agencies, and turning able teachers loose to teach as they see fit while asking them to demand that their students deliver their best performance — as we do our athletes. In a word, sports can provide a paradigm for excellence but they cannot be allowed to displace the things young people need to know in order to succeed in life.