During these times of great public concern over academic achievement, we're still sending a double message to students: Athletics matter; academics do not.
When was the last time a college history professor made it her business to find out the names and schools of the best high school history students in the country?
When was the last time a college basketball coach sat in his office and waited patiently for the admissions office to deliver a good crop of recruits for the team?
When did a high school history teacher last receive scores of phone calls and classroom visits from college professors interested in an unusually promising history student?
When did an unusually productive high school athlete in a major sport last hear from no one at the college level?
Not one of these situations ever happens—for some good reasons and some not-so-good ones.
But before you start thinking of those reasons, we should be clear about a few realities: Sometimes the high school coach besieged by college athletic recruiters is the same person who was ignored by colleges as a teacher. And sometimes the athlete who gets scholarship offers from college coaches is the same person who, as an outstanding student, drew no interest at all. Students and teachers observe continually this demonstration of the culture’s attachment of greater value to high school athletics than to academics. And it teaches them a lesson.
It is obvious, of course, that if coaches don’t scramble for the best high school talent they can find, they may start losing games—and, before long, perhaps their jobs. And college professors have always waited for the admissions office to deliver them their students. They may then complain about those students’ ignorance and inability to read or write well, but professors generally feel no need to search for high school students who are working hard and doing well in their fields. Their jobs do not depend, they imagine, on finding good students to come to their colleges.
How did we get this widely varying calculus of talent? While it is difficult to determine the number of high school athletes contacted each year by college coaches, we can estimate the numbers: If there are 3,400 colleges and, say, for example, 16 varsity sports, all of them needing players; and if only 16 athletes are contacted at each of the country’s approximately 20,000 high schools (a very conservative estimate), then each year some 320,000 student athletes get contacted by colleges.
What if history professors recruited?
What about student scholars? It’s important to remember that National Merit Scholars, for example, are selected on the basis of their National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test scores, not on their particular achievements in, say, history, physics, literature, or math. The equivalent process for athletics would be that scholarships were awarded on the basis of a physical-fitness test, with no regard for the athlete’s specific achievement in basketball, track, football, baseball, gymnastics, and so on.
Coaches make it their business not only to know who the best high school prospects are, but also to learn everything they can about those students. If a coach is recruiting a basketball player, for example, he or she will know, in addition to whether the athlete is hard-working and scores a lot, the stats on average minutes of play, blocks, free throws, steals, assists, fouls, field goals, three-point shots, and so forth.
College professors, on the other hand, are not only ignorant of who the best high school students in their disciplines are, but also know practically nothing about the academic accomplishments of the students in their classes. And while coaches routinely nag college-admissions officers to admit good prospects, the admissions office can find precious few professors who take the slightest interest in the freshman class it is trying to assemble for the coming year.
Such anti- academic messages don’t come from colleges alone. My local newspaper, The Boston Globe, produces about 100 pages of coverage each year for high school sports, as well as three seasonal 16-page supplements on local all- scholastic athletes, with pictures, data, interviews, and the like. The paper’s coverage of high school academic achievement, meanwhile, is for all practical purposes nonexistent.
The word "elitist" never occurs to college alumni (or anyone else) in the context of athletics.
Moreover, colleges’ alumni often take an inordinate interest in good high school athletes. And the word “elitist” never occurs to them (or anyone else) in this context. When Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar) was only a tall, gaunt high school senior, he was pursued by the head coaches of every major basketball program in the country and got personal letters from prominent African-Americans like former United Nations Undersecretary General Ralph Bunche and baseball legend Jackie Robinson. They urged him to go to the University of California, Los Angeles, and play basketball, which he did.
Why is this “double vision” important to high school teachers and students? During these times of great public concern over the academic achievement level of our high school graduates, a double message is regularly and reliably being sent: Athletics matter; academics do not. Both high school teachers, even those who are not coaches, and high school students, even those who are not athletes, get this message in the clear.
We should remember to be thankful for those students and teachers who continue to take high school academics seriously anyway.
Will Fitzhugh is the president of the National Writing Board and the founder and editor of The Concord Review, a national journal of student history writing, in Sudbury, Mass.