It's a problem that's deeply rooted and starts to manifest itself long before high school in many cases. Accountability for it doesn't fall on only one party. It has to be shared on many levels.
First of all, you have to start with the parents/guardians. Credit should be given to the many parents who do their utmost to help their child get their education, but it's not the same for all. Most reasonable parents have the best of intentions for their children, but some of them get as caught up or, in some cases, even more caught up in the fact that their child is such a talent on the playing field that they forget that they need to make sure he knows his ABCs and 123s. Others are just out and out selfish and simply push him too hard to lower that 40 time another tenth or bust it in the weight room for an extra hour instead of spending that hour studying for his English test. It's all well and good to want to see your child succeed. Even the parents who only care just a little bit do, but it doesn't need to be at the expense of their future.
If you're a parent, here's a sobering (or at least it should be) possibility to ponder: After he fails to make the grade and misses out on playing at USC, simply because he has the reading skills of an elementary student, there's a good chance he may well be living at home much longer than you really want him to.
Second of all, you have to look at how much the coaches push their players to get it done off the field as much as they do on it. Some coaches are pretty strict and walk the straight and narrow when it comes to making sure their players get it done in the classroom. No one wants their star back to miss the big game because he's academically ineligible. But on that same token, some coaches resort to getting the teachers to give their stars a break in the classroom so they can slip by and be able to play. It brings a new meaning to the phrase "winning at all costs," because it can do a lot to cost Mr. Fivestar a shot at a realistic future outside of sports.
That being said, if a teacher goes along with that kind of behavior, that's compromising their position. Teachers are supposed to help their students learn, not let them slide because someone tells them to. Some teachers, just as they do with regular students, don't bother to give the student-athletes the classroom help they need, giving way to a mindset of "Oh, they're just dumb as rocks already. There's nothing I can do to help them." That not only defies their duties as a teacher, it also lays the path for a poor future for Mr. Fivestar and some of his teammates.
But, however much responsibility lies with other parties, the majority of it lies with the student-athlete himself. Ultimately, despite the influences of anyone else, it's up to him to get the job done. And really, compared to 'regular' students, he has to do less work to get just as far.
The NCAA minimum eligibility requirements are not the same as the normal admissions requirements for many schools, which gives ol' Johnny Fivestar a little wiggle room. The NCAA currently uses a sliding scale, which means that a player can get into school with a lower GPA, provided he gets the right ACT score, or vice versa. The scales balance at a 2.5 GPA on the core courses (there are fourteen core credits you have to take and pass, according to the current NCAA requirements for Division I) and a 17 on the ACT (or its equivalent on the SAT). A 2.5 GPA equates to a little more than a C average, which is pretty doable if you put in the work in most of your classes, even if there are a few Ds scattered about your transcript. As far as the ACT goes, a 17 is a few points below the national average, so it's also doable. Even if you falter on one part, you can make up for it by doing well on others.
True enough, there are plenty of regular students who can't meet those requirements. Some people have problems with learning. Some people just don't care enough. But if you don't have problems with learning, and you have full mental capacity, there is little excuse for you to fall short. If you know you need to hit a target, you will do everything in your power to make sure you do.
Sometimes circumstances get in the way, but that's where willpower and motivation come in. You have to rise above it if you know you have to. Plenty of people have legitimate reasons for messing up, but after a while, even good reasons just become excuses. If you can at least show you care and that you're capable of doing well, it'll prove to the college coaches going after you that you're worth going after, even if you may have had some issues in the past. That comes from a former head coach who's had to deal with his share of recruits.
Most high schools do plenty to ensure that their students know what they need to do in order to not only get their high school diploma, but also what they need in case they want to go to a four-year college. I graduated high school in 2003, and I remember how from middle school onwards, we regularly did homeroom work that told us what we needed to know. We had a folder that held information like test scores, schedules, and academic requirements. That folder followed us from middle school to high school. Not only that, but before each year of high school, we had to fill out our schedules and look at what we had and hadn't taken already and what we needed to take. If we didn't know something, the guidance counselor was there to advise us.
Every school may not do those things the same way mine did, but some sort of graduation and post-graduation prep work is done, and there are guidance counselors there to help out as well.
Football does take up a lot of time, and you do take a lot of hits to the head, but there are no excuses for not knowing what you need to do to graduate or to meet the standards at the next level. Here's a simple equation for you. Players have to learn dozens of plays in a playbook. They do so by practice and repetition. Learning in the classroom takes that too. It may seem too time-consuming to have to devote time to both, but there are more than enough hours in the day.
Also, when it comes to standardized tests, schools do prep work for that, and there are practice booklets available at schools, in bookstores, and online to help; besides that, there are also plenty of tutors out there. But, a 6'4, 250 guy who can go and play on a broken hand may not have the strength to go and ask a 5'5, 120 pounds soaking wet 'nerd' for help to get that qualifying score on his ACT. And you can't use the excuse, 'but I have to practice or go lift weights' too much, because you can miss or reschedule a couple of weightlifting sessions to go make sure you get your grades.
So, the resources are out there. Once again, no excuses. Sure, a child may not always think rationally on his own, but if you have full brain capacity, and you know you need to do something, it's on you if you don't go and do all you can to accomplish it. If you need to pull your ACT score up a few points, get a tutor. And even for the student-athletes who have learning disabilities, they can get help for that too. The unfortunate thing is, they may be too ashamed to admit it, and even if everyone does know, it may be getting covered up.
That leads to one of the biggest issues. It'd be pretty naïve to ignore the fact that athletes tend to get breaks and passes that many regular students don't get. These practices not only hurt the athletes who actually do put the work in to make the grades and helps to furthers the 'dumb jock' stereotype, but it also is a slap in the face of the educational system and those regular students who actually have to fall back on their educations. It doesn't happen near as much as it did maybe two or three decades ago when someone like my mother was still in school, but I've seen firsthand that it still does.
Does it really help the athlete in the long run? Far from it. Sooner or later, their ignorance will be exposed. Maybe they'll get breaks on through college and squeak by enough to get a degree or play professionally, but when they have to go sign a contract or be out in the real world, they'll be lost. Or maybe their inability to read well or do simple math catches up to them in college, and they're much too far behind to be able to catch up.
Some will wise up and put in the work they need to so they can make their grades, but so many others are too engrained in laziness to turn things around, and they wind up on a completely different path than they'd hoped.
Yes, kids can be easily swayed by what they see on TV and by what people around them whisper in their ear. For those who do try to sway them in the wrong direction, you should be ashamed of yourselves. If you really care, you'd get through to them that they need their education more than that 4.3 40 to impress the scouts and recruiters. But, it's a two-way street. Through that immature young adult brain, the student-athlete needs to see for himself and decide on his own what he needs to do. Ultimately, it's up to him. Sure, many have legitimate reasons to suffer a lapse academically, but most of those reasons wear out after a time and become nothing more than excuses.
The fact is that most of the stories we hear of players failing to meet academic requirements involve black athletes. A good number of these guys come from less than stellar backgrounds, and that can play into their thought process. "Why do I need an education? The easiest way to get me and my family out of here is if I work as hard as I can to make it to the NFL. I don't want to be stuck working 9 to 5 on some dead-end job. I want to be making millions. I need to."
It's easy for a teenager to be disillusioned by seeing the enormous contracts and lavish lifestyles the Michael Vick's and others like him lead. Michael Vick came from one of the rougher neighborhoods in the country, along with Aaron Brooks, Allen Iverson, and Ronald Curry. But for all of those guys, there's a Marcus Vick or Maurice Clarett. You have to think realistically. The money, cars, women, and fame are all nice to daydream about, but you have to have a backup plan.
Only a small percentage of the players you see on college rosters right now will actually ever make it to the NFL. Plenty of those who don't go on to have futures elsewhere, some in a football-related capacity. But what becomes of that guy who let his education fall by the wayside? What can he or anyone else do? Just look back and see how little reason there is for Johnny Former-Fivestar to be flipping burgers or sweeping floors, forced to reminisce about that one-handed, game-winning TD catch in the state championship game or that time he knocked out Mr. Future All-Pro's mouthpiece, instead of being out there doing well for himself and living with no regrets.
Unfortunately, these problems have their roots long before high school. A lot of these guys have already been long left behind or given up before they get to high school or to the point where they see they have potential to play at a higher level.
It doesn't have to happen. There are far too many academic casualties, athlete-related and otherwise. For anyone who is in a position to help prevent it, do everything in your power to. Coaches, teachers, parents, it's on you. And to the students themselves, your education is important, more important than that next touchdown you score or that interception you made to save the last game. Football comes to an end sooner or later.
The future isn't a game. But to look at it in football terms, when it's all said and done, we don't want to see Johnny Fivestar on the wrong end of the scoreline on the playing field of the real world.
Eddie Griffin is a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website.