Let's put the 'student' back in student-athlete

By C.T. BOWEN Editor of Editorials
Published April 22, 2007

It was a regrettable lesson learned during the initial exposure to high school athletics.

Character counts. As long as you have a winning record.

This was more than 30 years ago at an upstate New York high school of 1,200 students. Big things were expected from the ninth-grade basketball team after two years of dominating other schools at the junior high level. There was even a new kid who had torn up the competition a year earlier at the local Catholic school.

Shortly before the first game of the season, the new kid was gone, banished from the team for smoking cigarettes. The coach explained why and said the same fate awaited anyone else using tobacco.

The team lost the season opener by a wide margin, which set the tone for what turned out to be an unsuccessful year as measured by wins and losses.

Still worse, at the initial practice after that first game, the new kid was back. He had been invited to rejoin the team by a coach who never did explain his change of heart to the players. He didn't need to; the message was clear. Victories mattered more than convictions.

We were 14 years old and too immature and too intimidated to speak up. Of course, nowadays, somebody's helicopter parent would likely make a fuss on our behalf.

That memory reverberates after every arrest of a Cincinnati Bengal, every dubious character auditioned by Jon Gruden, every steroid allegation in Major League baseball and every probation handed out by the NCAA. There's always somebody willing to look the other way or excuse some transgression if it gives their team an edge.

Then consider Gulf Middle School's policies as detailed this week by Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek. There, they remember to emphasize the first word in student-athlete.

In a significant departure from simply requiring team members to maintain a C average, teachers rate the student-athletes weekly in punctuality, behavior, class work and homework.

Failing to perform in the classroom means fewer opportunities to perform on the field or court. A single "needs improvement" in any area in any weekly report puts the player on the bench for the start of the next game.

There are plenty of reasons to promote interscholastic athletics. Student-athletes learn the value of competition, sportsmanship and teamwork. Successful programs foster school loyalty among the student body and stimulate community interest and civic pride.

For proof of that, see Pasco High replacing a football coach who failed to connect with the boosters in Dade City; county commissioners recognizing the Gulf High football team for making the playoffs; the quest for Ridgewood High baseball coach Larry Beets bobblehead dolls, or the reverence in Land O'Lakes toward anybody named Weatherford.

Still, learning how to be successful students is more important than learning how to be successful athletes.

An acquaintance tells the story of her 11-year-old son's Little League coach recommending to the soccer players on his team to give up that sport and concentrate solely on baseball because more college scholarships are available for baseball than for soccer.

You don't think it has anything to do with a coach trying to improve his team's chances at winning by eliminating distractions that keep them off the baseball field, do you?

A more appropriate lecture to the aspiring players should have focused on telling them to have fun on the diamond and on the soccer field, but to study hard in the classroom. There are more scholarships available for academics than for athletics.

It is the motivation behind the policy at Gulf Middle. Athletics is not a right, but a privilege. The model is worth duplicating across Pasco County's school district.