About (Minority) Student Athletes…

Rachel was in huge trouble with her classmates this week. Got called insensitive and inflexible and all sorts of other professionally mean things. I know I mentioned that she’s doing a Master’s program (because she’s Superwoman), but I never mentioned her major. She’s trying to be a teacher. The question came up as to whether to give a failing student athlete a passing grade if he needed one for the 2.0 GPA required to get an athletic scholarship at a university. The class almost unanimously said yes. Rachel was the exception.

The reasons that other members of the class gave to justify handing out a passing grade weren’t very satisfying either, the worst of them being, “the poor hard working black kid just can’t handle traditional tests and writing assessments, so just give him an easier alternative test.” This made my blood boil, but not from the typical “I’m a hard working, average guy and I don’t get breaks like the dumb jocks” standpoint. The vibe was very much one where minorities weren’t expected to be as smart as their peers, and athletics is the only place they could possibly excel, which is born from every stereotype that’s been fed to us for eternity. There was very much an expectation that minority athletes just couldn’t cut it in any field that required using their brains, so instead of wasting time trying to get them to apply themselves, they would just pawn them off to someone else.

Rachel has unique experiences from dealing with college athletes. She has coached at UC-Santa Barbara, and she’s had to tutor student athletes who have been passed along using the “let the struggling black kid be someone else’s burden” approach. It’s ugly. They’re borderline illiterate. They submit papers that wouldn’t pass 9th grade English courses, much less university classes. And you know what? That’s not really their fault; it’s an institutional problem.

For those unaware, the job of teachers has changed drastically since the ambitious sounding, but silly No Child Left Behind act passed. Teachers have always been evaluated on how well students learn their coursework, but now, since much of the learning is evaluated with standardized, pressurized testing, much of the context of how much a child has improved over the course of a year is gone, and that puts them in a really tough situation. It’s easy enough to say that the satisfaction of knowing that a child improved a great deal even if it didn’t show on the test should be good enough from a safe distance, but teachers get fired if children don’t perform well on these tests. It turns into a situation where it pits their own livelihood against the academic progress of a student, and it’s human nature to choose self-preservation, even if the more noble option would be to help the child at all costs.

This quandary is complicated even further when the child is gifted athletically and has to make a certain GPA limit. Not only do they have the pressure of risking their own jobs because a certain student is having a rough time in their classes, but they also have coaches, athletic directors and sometimes even the local community breathing down their neck because they can’t make their only hope of a state championship academically ineligible.

Institutionally, I think that much of the issue comes down to society’s prevailing thoughts about minorities in general. We’re still seen as a one dimensional commodity who are really good at entertaining, whether it’s through athletics, music and the like, but not much else. To them, pushing us academically is basically a waste of time, unless we are obviously gifted mentally. As a result, when an athletically gifted minority struggles in the classroom at an early age, he is passed along when he should be held back, tutored and mentally nurtured while the stakes are still low. The problem only worsens exponentially as he falls further behind and loses more confidence in himself and is continually fed bullshit by peers and coaches saying that the ball that he’s carrying or dribbling is his meal ticket. The further he falls behind, the less prepared he is for the real world that inevitably hits him when he’s one of the 98% of people who don’t develop into pro athletes. And where are those people who passed him along and sang his praises while downplaying the importance of school when he’s just a regular guy wholly unprepared for real life because ensuring that he could read beyond a 4th grade level was too much of an inconvenience? Gone, that’s where.

I say all of that to say that I totally agree with Rachel, and the teachers (namely, the frighteningly large majority of the future educators in Rachel’s class) who feel otherwise either don’t understand the implications of what they’re doing or they don’t care, in which case they should find another line of work. I can rattle off studies about how home environments and income affect a child’s learning curve upon entering school, but my point is that we have to stop enabling and encouraging our minority children to put all of their figurative eggs in one fucking basket. As educators, we (I say “we” because I’m pursing education as well) can’t succumb to the pressure of passing children along when they clearly need help at their current level, blindly hoping that someone else will help him. Helping them early not only sets them up for future success in terms of plainly having the academic base to learn at the next grade, but it also instills confidence in them. They learn that skills can be honed and improved, even if they don’t come naturally. They also learn that teachers actually do care about them enough to ensure their future success, although it may come with the minor setback of summer school or repeating an early grade. In my opinion, that’s what teaching is about. Rachel’s classmates can suck it.

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