Michael Stahl admits to giving into the pressure to pass a failing student athlete for a winning program. He peels the curtain back and offers a stern warning.
I was an awful wrestler in high school. I never won a match and I never earned a spot as a starter. The only reason I was an alternate for two years on the school’s varsity squad was because the coach had an all-inclusive policy. Though my lack of athletic ability was at times painfully obvious there was something to be said for the fact that I always made weight for the team’s matches and constantly maintained academic eligibility. Both requirements were frequently cited by the coach as more important than anything else because of the discipline it took to accomplish each goal.
While I was proud of the small victories that occurred off the mat, on more than one occasion I also witnessed my coach verbally berate our team’s starters, some of them captains, for failing too many classes and thus becoming ineligible to compete. I’d then watch him leave his office to go pressure teachers into changing the kids’ grades to passing.
Our school’s wrestling program had a solid reputation around New York City, and we were always a contender for a championship, so we certainly valued the contributions of those failing students. But what was more vital in those moments? Having a kid participate in a sport that likely wouldn’t even provide him with a chance to make a living if he chose to partake in it as an adult, or teaching that child a lesson—one that could ultimately be of far greater help to him—about honesty and earning his keep. It was clear to me, even then, that on most days of the week, the desire to win would trump the ethics and policies that were in place to shape those kids into upstanding adults.
Now, for a student-athlete who is head-and-shoulders above all his peers and projected to become a professional, what happens over the course of their childhood? What do adults let them get away with?
When I read about grade tampering in the NCAA, professional players lying about taking performance-enhancing drugs, or athletes exhibiting violent behavior, I think back to a few instances in my life where the values that are taught in this country were compromised for a few more victories and recognize the impact of rash, irresponsible actions on the part of adults in youth leadership positions.
I fear that I too once exhibited poor judgment in dealing with a student-athlete. When I taught at my former high school many years after I graduated, a student of mine—a senior headed to college on a scholarship—was the baseball team’s star player. With a couple of weeks left in the regular season schedule, he received his second of three report cards for the semester. He failed two classes, including mine, which was mostly due to missing homework assignments and essays. The varsity baseball team was undefeated up to that point and lost two consecutive games once he was declared ineligible, which threatened their division title that once seemed inevitable.
A group of players aged between fifteen and eighteen gathered outside of my classroom after a dismissal bell one day and begged me to change my student’s grade so the team could claim the division and go on to the playoffs with him leading the way. I met with their coach and, to his credit, he put no pressure on me to change the grade. But I did so anyway on the promise—laid out in a crude contract the boy signed—that my student would complete every assignment in my class the rest of school year.
Though it was the team and not the coach that came to me, I felt like a hypocrite, essentially mirroring the actions of my high school wrestling coach. For a couple more weeks my student played with the baseball team, who won their division as well as their first playoff game. But then he didn’t turn in a required essay assignment, which prompted me to once again reverse his report card grade back to an “F.”
The baseball team lost the next playoff game without him, and he lost his scholarship, having to attend summer school to finally graduate. Though I suppose the boy ultimately learned his lesson, in my mind it came a few weeks too late. For a time—no matter how brief—I allowed him to be unjustly viewed as an equally successful student when compared to the others who earned genuine passing grades.
A year later I was teaching at a New York catholic school, one more widely known for its athletics program. A graduate of the school had made an NFL team as a fourth- or fifth-option wide receiver that year, and when he visited his hometown for a road game against the Giants, a current student interviewed him for the school’s morning newscast.
The rookie receiver hit all the clichés, talking about how the kids in the school need to work hard to accomplish their dreams, and there was a great sense of awe and admiration for him among the student body. Later, I’d learn that when he was a student there some five years prior, he earned terrible grades and constantly disrespected adults, even telling one female veteran teacher to go fuck herself.
The next revered wide receiver prospect during my tenure there was a student of mine as a tenth grader. He excelled in my class and worked diligently to improve upon whatever mistakes he made. By the time he was a senior and had earned his Division I scholarship to a Top-25 college football program, it became a running joke throughout the school how he hardly ever attended classes and that, of course, it didn’t really matter.
He would graduate anyway, as we all anticipated, and his high school would have another name to put in its Hall of Fame. It frustrated me to see that young man stray from the values he seemed to prioritize—like hard word, dedication, self respect, and simply doing things “right”—just two years prior. Though I wish him the best, his college football career hasn’t taken off and I don’t think anyone envisions him emerging as a professional at any point. What will become of him? If he can find the person he was as a tenth grader in my classroom, I think he’ll manage in the real world just fine. If not…
I’ve never been around any kid who’s gone on to become a pro athlete. I was a poor sportsman on a team that garnered minimal attention and a teacher at schools hardly considered athletic powerhouses. Yet I’ve seen striking examples of petty corruption and even played into its hands on one occasion. It makes me wonder what happens to a true star athlete is in his more formative years, one who has likely made mistakes as every young person does, but also never dealt with significant consequences of his actions. If we hold them to a lesser moral standard than other children, how can we be surprised to see them become unsavory characters as adults?
If our society wants to produce more professional athletes that we can all admire, both on the field and off, then the coaches, administrators, teachers, and parents of those kids who are fortunate enough to be gifted in such a way that they can make a living playing a game once they grow up, must enforce the same rules upon the athletes as they would any other child. It’s not the easy way to do things, but it’s the right way. And if the student-athlete genuinely wants to be part of a sporting life, they’ll fall in line anyway. They are the children after all. The adult-run institutions supporting the athletes from high schools to universities to professional leagues will maintain credibility—if not raise the level of it—and the sports enterprises will still make their money.
Photo: Flickr/North Charleston