As the basketball season began, a student-athlete at International Christian High School asked me to tutor him in the skills he needed to improve his game. I told him, OK, as long as he promised he would put as much time into his academics as his basketball. "Education is your lifeline," I told him, "not basketball."
I don't know if he will heed those words. Too many high school basketball players don't, proclaiming beyond all doubt, "One day I'm going to play in college and then in the NBA." Sheer madness.
One study revealed that only 1 percent of high school basketball players in the country will play Division I basketball, and only about 70 of those players will make it to the pros each year. The overwhelming majority of high school kids who have invested their future in playing basketball will wind up off the court.
The emphasis on academics needs to be ramped up; the focus on sports needs to be tamped down. (Lower-profile sports are suffering, too: Temple announced Friday that it was eliminating seven of its 24 sports programs, including baseball, softball, track and field, and rowing, to boost funding for other sports.)
I say this in light of a recent study that showed students in China outperformed their counterparts from 65 other countries in reading, math, and science in a test given by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. U.S. students scored 17th in reading, 29th in math, and 23d in science. Other figures are equally dismal. A fourth of U.S. ninth graders fail to graduate from high school within four years; only a handful of countries have a higher dropout rate.
I am not blaming participation in sports programs for the poor academic performance of many U.S. high school kids. I love sports. They teach a toughness of spirit and a willingness to sacrifice, and they provide opportunities for some gifted athletes that they wouldn't ordinarily have.
But too many high school athletes put an inordinate emphasis on sports at the expense of academics. I've seen it up-front and personal.
When I coached high school basketball, two of my players - good players, good kids - were being courted by several Division I coaches. Yet when these coaches found out that the kids' GPAs and SAT scores were not up to speed, they lost interest.
I had repeatedly urged these kids to focus more seriously on the books; I even got them free tutoring to help boost their SAT scores. They refused to listen - you see, they were going to the NBA. They never got there.
What has happened is this: Sports like basketball and football have evolved into an experience of great intensity and passion for high school administrators, coaches, players, and fans. There is an overpowering lust for winning and an overpowering loathing for losing. Kids get caught up in this hoopla, and the glory and adulation they receive often limits their ability to perceive their skills objectively.
When dreams of gaining athletic scholarships and playing professional sports fall short, as they do for most kids, there has to be something to fall back on, and that something is education.
For most high school and college athletes, sports are for a short time, but education is for a lifetime.