Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

Where their futures are concerned, poor and minority youths are increasingly prompted to take the three-point shot. The all-or-nothing message gets reinforced in everything from state-sponsored lotteries to celebrity-obsessed media. To be sure, America's schools and colleges assume a public posture far above this spectacle of bread and circuses. The NCAA underwrites the "stay in school" spots that show up on children's programming and sports broadcasts. And it promotes its "student athletes" as if the average Division I quarterback embodied the well-rounded ideal man of classical Greece. Public schools likewise pay lip service to the importance of studies. But for children, actions always speak louder than words, even when the actions come as subtext. When schools bend themselves out of shape to accommodate athletics they become one more voice in the chorus encouraging children to kiss off the drudgery of denominators or mole weights and go for the long bomb with their futures.

In most American high schools, athletics now set the tone, establish the priorities, and influence the standards. The poorer and darker-skinned a school's student demographic, the greater the impact. You can still get away with being a nerd in a suburban high school. But inner-city children--especially boys--who take their studies seriously mark themselves for all to see as white wannabes. It probably doesn't matter whether the system is specially torqued to favor athletes or the bar is lowered for everyone specifically so that the athletes can showcase their talent without the tiresome distraction of schoolwork. Children always get the real message, and the message these days is to swing for the fences. The people who are going somewhere from school are the ones who can play ball.

In the clean, spare halls and utilitarian classrooms of North High School, the power of sports to set the agenda is almost a visible presence. If you looked only at the North High syllabus, with its advanced placement and college-credit courses, you might think this is some sort of high-powered prep school honing over-achievers for the Ivy League and the professions. But in her 10th grade English and African American literature classes, Mrs. Abdul Quddoos gets a clearer perspective on the difference between what is available for the dedicated few and what is happening with the great majority of students. "The basic reading level here is very low," she avers. "I have only a handful of students with the reading ability to work at the level on which I would like to conduct my classes. It's very frustrating for good students to feel challenged at all."

Much of the problem, she believes, is attributable to an atmosphere in which athletics is valued to the exclusion of almost everything else. And it starts, she says, from the top down. "There is an over-emphasis on sports even among many teachers."

Do teachers actually bend their standards or otherwise make exceptions for athletes? Of course, claims Abdul Quddoos. "The emphasis on sports may cause teachers to overcompensate in any of several ways: 'Oh, this person has so many pressures, I'll make allowances on his work.' Or maybe, 'I'll make an extra effort with this person because he's going to get a college scholarship.'

"What's really sad," she says, "is that the focus on sports is so single-minded that even those kids who successfully combine athletics and academics get nowhere near the recognition of those who simply excel at sports." And as proof of her proposition, she points to two young men who happen to be sitting in her class during homeroom.

Javonte Adams is only a sophomore, and there is still some baby fat on his cherubic face, but his broad, solid body already has college lineman stamped all over it. He is the kind of kid football coaches drool over--not that he'll necessarily need an athletic scholarship. He carries a 4.0 grade point average, and he is achingly modest and level-headed. He plans to study business and marketing; maybe some day he'll start his own company. For one so young, he seems unnaturally rationalistic in his dreams. In a school with too many kids full of ill-conceived aspirations, you want to shake this one's broad shoulders and tell him to go for the gusto. And when asked what he would study if he didn't have to worry about making a living, he admits that he's really fascinated by art and acting and singing.

Imagine that. A kid whose dreams aren't all wound around the NFL or the NBA. And he shares Abdul Quddoos's feelings about the school's distorted value system. "It's frustrating. I get a lot more recognition among my friends for playing football than I do for what I've accomplished in the classroom. And we had a lousy football team last year."

The other demonstration in Abdul Quddoos's argument is a tall, slender young man sitting quietly apart from the homeroom hubbub, chair propped against the wall. He is, it turns out, Jabbar Washington, the Polars' slick-shooting All-State forward. By his own admission, he is not an academic powerhouse like Adams. But he has easily met the NCAA requirements on the ACT, and according to Abdul Quddoos he is a hard worker. In fact, his grades are good enough for him to have received a full athletic scholarship at Cal Poly. It's a second-tier sports school, but a first-rank business and engineering college. Even if he tears up a knee sometime in the next few years, he is a young man who has wrested a realistic future out of sports.

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