A little-noticed controversy played out in the District of Columbia schools recently that highlights a rarely discussed reason African-American boys lag so far behind in academics: sports.
That sounds wrongheaded, doesn’t it? After all, conventional wisdom holds that sports are supposed to keep at-risk boys interested in school and out of trouble. But in fact, sports can have just the opposite effect.
The controversy involved Ballou High School, academically one of the worst high schools in one of the country’s worst urban school districts. The Ballou Knights, it turns out, used an ineligible player to win a football game that qualified the team for a coveted spot in the annual Turkey Bowl championship game—a Thanksgiving Day tradition in the nation’s capital.
A community that pushes sports over academics is doing a terrible disservice to its children.
The Washington Post reported the player in question was allegedly flunking a course and falling short of the minimum 2.0 grade point average required to play sports. The player subsequently dropped the class he was failing, a source told the Post, and joined another class in which he received an A after attending the class for a mere three days.
District of Columbia public school officials found out, investigated, and blocked Ballou from playing in the Turkey Bowl—something that, in my view, never would have happened before Michelle Rhee took charge of the school system in 2007. When she arrived, some high schools had been ignoring academic-eligibility requirements, and some coaches refused to hold study halls for academically troubled players. Rhee cracked down, insisting that minimum GPAs for sports be enforced and study halls conducted. The move triggered conflict that led to the departure of football coaches at three high schools. Throughout, it was striking how little support Rhee got from parents and alumni. To many of them, winning—and giving their kids what they saw as a shot at playing professionally—was the priority. The thinking went: Who cares if they don’t keep up with their schoolwork, if they are doing well on the field?
It’s perhaps understandable that high school boys ignore the odds and insist that academics don’t matter because they have a shot at the pros. But parents should know better. A community that pushes sports over academics is doing a terrible disservice to its children, who will find themselves in deep trouble when their athletic aspirations fail to materialize and they don’t have the academic background to do much else.
In recent months, we’ve seen reports from several respected groups laying out the grim statistics for African-American males:
• Only 12 percent of black boys in 4th grade nationwide are proficient in reading, according to the Council of the Great City Schools.
• Fewer than half of black males graduate from high school on time, according to the Schott Foundation.
• Black males earn half the number of college degrees that black females do, according to the College Board.
Reports on the black male crisis routinely blame causes ranging from poverty to fatherless families, but they rarely touch on sports. I’ve been no better: I wrote an entire book on boys falling behind (Why Boys Fail, Amacom, 2010) and never cited sports as one of the triggers. In hindsight, I was wrong.
The misplaced emphasis on sports can be found in many urban schools. Sports programs that aren’t paired with strict academic guidelines are harmful to black males in two ways.
First, they encourage boys to shun academics in hopes of making it in the pros—an extreme long shot. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only one in every 1,250 high school football players is drafted by the NFL, and fewer than one in every 3,300 boys who play high school basketball makes it to the NBA.
Second, even the goal of playing college ball might be out of reach. Many talented athletes recruited by colleges arrive on campus to find they can’t play because they fall short on academic qualifications.
Everybody loves a winning team. But if we don’t make sure our black boys are succeeding not just on the playing fields but in the classroom, we are setting them up to lose.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Emphasizing Sports Over Academics Sets Up Black Boys to Lose