Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

Of course. Jabbar Washington is right. The academic standards for athletic participation are way too low. Officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul will tell you emphatically that their standards for athletic participation are much higher than those of other large metropolitan areas. But in Minnesota the statewide academic standard for participation in athletics is "minimum progress"--you don't even have to be passing your courses. Maybe there are no Farragut Academies in the Twin Cities, but you can do as poorly as Kevin Garnett on the ACT and still be eligible to play basketball in Minneapolis public schools.

The situation is scarier than that. According to MPS Athletic Director John Washington, "If you look at Minneapolis's standards, they are higher than any other district in the area. I am constantly under pressure from other athletic directors to lower our standards." He is saying that while most metro districts require a "D" average for athletic participation, the Minneapolis schools require a "C" average.

Grades are relative by district, school, even teacher, but that frames a basic question neatly enough: How can a student be doing "C" work at the senior level in the Minneapolis Public Schools and be unable to score 17 on the ACT? After all, a 17 doesn't get you into medical school. In truth, any minimally competent student should be able to score that high by the end of the junior year at the latest.

The more I asked that question, the more it seemed like the right one. In 15 years of reporting on education, I've never encountered any issue that seemed so sensitive among administrators at the building and district level. Athletic Director John Washington maintained there was no problem. No one else would talk about it at all. Superintendent Peter Hutchinson, the management guru from the Public Strategies Group consultants, has made something of a fetish of an open-door policy toward parents, the public, and the press. On occasion, he's allotted City Pages more than an hour of his time on general educational subjects. After a week of phone calls requesting five minutes on this subject, Hutchinson remained unavailable for comment. Likewise, after multiple phone requests to answer a few questions about the role of athletics in public education, North principal Birch Jones, cornered in the halls, flatly declared, "I have no opinions on that subject."

Clem Haskins is by no means the only one for whom the increasing domination of athletics in education represents a conflict of interest. Consider the lobbies aligned on this issue: the coaching profession and the sports industry, school administrators, civil rights leadership and the redneck-jock-fan contingent--what writer Philip Wylie called "the offal in the bleachers." Odd bedfellows indeed. The hegemony of sports in the schools is a festering, growing problem precisely because the leadership of a great many powerful constituencies have oxen to be gored.

What's interesting--and embarrassing for the leadership on this issue--is that the few voices calling for change are coming up from the ranks. A black teacher here; a student there; even an athlete or two. And make no mistake about it: There were red faces in the administrative offices of the Minneapolis Public Schools when Arlene El-Amin pulled her son off the North basketball team. It's hard to talk about your high scholastic standards with a straight face when the parents of the district's best athlete yank him off the court in dissatisfaction with his academic progress.

Not that anything is likely to change soon. There are simply too many entrenched interests. But getting away from intractable problems is one reason they play the games. And at least out on the hardwood, Minnesota's season of basketball mania (amateur division) came to a reasonably gratifying and symmetrical conclusion on Saturday, March 29. That afternoon, Khalid El-Amin, showboating before a national television audience, helped to direct his Eastern teammates to victory over the Western All-Stars in the McDonald's High School All-America game. Later that evening, Minnesota's Golden Gophers eventually succumbed to Kentucky's tenacious defense in the semifinal round of the Final Four. Lacking a fully healthy blue-chip point guard, the Gophers were unable to break Kentucky's full-court press, turning the ball over 15 times in the first half alone. With El-Amin's choice of colleges still up in the air, hoop freaks all over Minnesota must have been sharing the sentiments expressed on a fan placard at the high school finals: We Can Hope.

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