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Original Issue


I've heard a lot of discussion lately about putting new restrictions on the eligibility requirements for participation in high school and college athletics. It has been suggested that kids who can't carry a C average should not be allowed to play high school sports or qualify for an athletic scholarship to college. It's a national disgrace, I've read, that high school boys and girls who can't even pass English are allowed to be on teams, just because they are good in sports. Some critics complain that colleges make it easier for sports stars to maintain their grades by allowing them to take only "easy" classes, like phys ed. My feeling is, why not?

I should admit right from the start that I'm not an impartial observer in this argument, but the mother of a son who has been labeled a "dumb jock." This is written, with pain, in his defense and in the defense of others like him.

Randy has never been good in school. I'm not exactly sure why. He was diagnosed by a school psychometrist as severely dyslexic, but I'm not completely comfortable with an explanation that seems to be a catchall for a whole collection of learning problems. Whatever the reason, despite his higher than average IQ, each of Randy's nine years in school—he repeated third grade and is now in eighth—has been a struggle.

Randy can tear a racing bike completely apart and put it back together; he can draw a good likeness of the human form; he can carry on an intelligent conversation on almost any subject; he conscientiously does his homework every night and studies hours for each test, but to no avail. He's still one of those kids who can't pass English. Randy is a standout in football, baseball, wrestling and track, but to his school the only thing that really matters is his grade-point average.

Randy played football this year, as a running back on offense and a linebacker on defense, and was first in yards per carry and second in tackles. His football statistics give him some pride in himself. If he feels small and anxious in the classroom, the gridiron is a place where he can shine. I don't know if he will get to play again. He was just pulled from the wrestling team because of his English grade. I know that participating in sports is supposed to be a carrot—an incentive for kids to measure up scholastically. But for some, like Randy, no matter how much they want the carrot, they simply aren't capable of making the grade.

Larry Bird was not a noted scholar in high school or in college—but he almost single-handedly took Indiana State to the NCAA finals in 1979. He went to the Boston Celtics after graduation and is acknowledged by many to be one of the all-time great basketball players. Basketball was his best subject. So what if he wasn't a genius in the classroom; he is a genius on the basketball court. Isn't that reason enough to let him play?

Americans like to think of athletics as endowed with the innocence of freckle-faced boys playing casual games of sand-lot baseball. But in this we fool ourselves. Sports today mean multimillion-dollar TV contracts for colleges and universities with superior teams because fans enjoy watching outstanding young athletes perform. High school and college sports are virtually the only means by which a young person may enter professional athletics. Only a few especially talented boys and girls will ultimately succeed, but they deserve the opportunity to compete in their area of excellence, the same as aspiring engineers and economists do.

All kids don't excel in all areas. Is it fair to tell some that because they can't live up to the standards in the area that we have deemed most important, they don't deserve to participate in any other? What if the situation were reversed? Would it be just to tell a child he couldn't qualify for computer classes because he couldn't punt a football? Why must we classify our young people so rigidly? Why can't we let each boy and girl go in the direction that their natural talents take them? If it happens to be jumping a hurdle or dunking a basketball, so be it. Are we to reserve all the rewards for the lucky few who are able to master everything and deny for the others, like Randy, any pride in themselves? Do we tell kids like Randy—"If you can't do this one thing, you can't do anything?" Isn't it possible to give all of our children the feeling that they can belong, whether it be in scholastics or sports?