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Sports and the disadvantaged student

We are coming into the final stretch of the college basketball season and it seems a good time to make the following observation.

The only category of education that presently has its accomplishments tested on a competitive basis (that being sports) is also the only category of education that is motivating and developing disadvantaged students to achieve their highest personal potential at what they are being taught.

Does it surprise anyone that the only part of education where student achievement can not be rigged (better/best football team, etc.) is also the only part of education that is producing marketable graduates from the disadvantaged communities? Or that it accomplishes this with less need for quotas and reduced expectations than any other category of education? In many cases these kids are able to move straight into national and international professional careers straight from high school. And when they do attend college, the academic education they receive is a by-product of their athletic educations.

And is it any surprise that a very disproportionate share of disadvantaged students gravitate to the only service of the education industry that is intractably merit judged and race indifferent at every single level of education from Pee Wee league to NCAA?

What better model could we ask for when we look to improve the motivation and education of disadvantaged students in other categories of learning?

22 comments to Sports and the disadvantaged student

  • ResidentAlien

    I’d never thought about it like that. You’re absolutely right. For the record I was useless at sports. The lowest point of my school career was being made to miss maths and repeat the 1500 meter run after my cunning plan to run so slowly that I actually only did 1100 meters was rumbled.

  • veryretired

    There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that the educational structures at all levels are increasingly disfunctional. Partly, this is due to a “soft” abandonment of any academic standards that students must reach, and also some unfortunate synergies with a couple of the worst aspects of both the major cultural and sub-cultural environments.

    I’ve looked through my kids’ various textbooks over the years and found them painfully “dumbed down”, even at the private schools they have attended. One of the overlooked consequences of the huge public educational system is that everything is designed to fit in with it, with the result that the textbooks available are written for the larger system.

    Even if a particular school or group of schools tries to increase their level of academic rigor, the materials available may undercut the effort.

    Combine the routine cultural suspicion and derision directed at “eggheads” and “brains” with the bizarre adoration of sports figures, and the incentive to spend hours upon hours studying for the sake of scholarship, or even better grades, fades in the face of the the possibility of spending that time practicing a sport, and becoming a hero to one’s peers and the larger community.

    Add in the time spent playing video games, socializing, and just goofing off, and there’s little left for study, much less the energy or inclination to bear down and concentrate on academics.

    I have dealt with variations of all these factors and problems with my kids, all of whom have attempted to juggle academics, sports, work, and a social life into a 24 hour day. It is only through relentless demands that school work take precedence over other activities that we have managed to keep them focused, and reasonably successful, amid all the other distractions.

    There is a constant drumbeat of concern about the gap between the wealthiest and poorest in our society, and, while I may question some of the motivations and suggested remedies, I can at least understand the concern—that the disparity will result in major social conflicts in the future.

    What I cannot understand is the seeming lack of comprehension and concern over a problem that seems just as serious—that there is a widening knowledge gap between the highly educated technocrats who increasingly determine the course of our economic and social developments, and the little educated middle and underclasses, who make up the majority of our citizenry, are supposedly consulted regarding significant political and economic issues, and whose functional literacy is declining on a yearly basis.

    How can a citizenry which cannot read anything more complicated than the headlines on the sports pages choose a course among several complex alternatives in a century which will almost certainly be dominated by relentless scientific and technical developments, and their resultant social and economic consequences?

    I wish I had even an inkling of an answer to that question.

  • the academic education they receive is a by-product of their athletic educations.

    The comparison between academic education athletic “education” is false. They are not the same thing, as the use of the word “education” is trying to imply. It’s more like academic education vs. athletic training.
    Claiming that minority students do better at athletics thanks to the competitive and merit based nature of athletics is also false. They do better at athletics for other reasons – like physical attributes or cultural biases. I doubt that – if academic studies became as competitive as athletics – the athletes would excell at their studies. It takes a different personality, different aptitudes. The two fields are not comparable.

    This does not mean I’m agains more rigorous, merit based and competitive practices in academics.

  • jon

    If every student had all the additional tutoring, scheduling benefits, and structured life a student athlete has available (no, actually it is forced) to him, almost everyone would be more likely to succeed. But how much does the extra assistance cost? A lot. Extra computer labs, tutors, advisors, and the resources to keep them up to date costs some serious money.

    Student athletes are a good example of the subsidization of education, not a success story about making it on the free market. (Yes, I know there are plenty of “pull up their bootstraps” stories out there, but they are not the rule at all institutions. Some institutions, but not many.)

  • manuel II paleologos

    Sports have in many ways been “dumbed down” in the same way as academics.

    My kids play football (soccer) in a “little league” on 7-a-side small pitches. These are non-selective teams, in that everyone who signs up and attends training gets to play, and teams are penalised if they don’t give everyone a fair game. Players who aren’t so good (my little boy William being a good example) are coached and allowed to play where their strengths (in his case, mindless bravery) are best deployed.

    The result is that the standards of the best 11 players in school are perhaps lower, but that ten times as many people get to play to a reasonable, highly enjoyable and ferociously competitive standard.

    Compare this to my own school, where the first eleven received personal coaching from the local professionals and the rest of us got given some traffic cones and a ball and stood around neglected each frozen afternoon, and I think it is indeed a good analogy for what’s happening in education.

  • Midwesterner

    So let me get this right, Jacob, learning multiplication tables is “education”, learning to read a defensive strategy is “training”. That is utterly bogus semantics.

    Claiming “minority students … do better at athletics for other reasons – like physical attributes …” is even worse. I should have realized that with the topic of academics and sports it wouldn’t take long for someone to start ‘explaining’ things with stereotypes.

    At no time did I use the word “minority”. I do not equate minority with disadvantage. For you this appears to have been a reflexive assumption.

    Unless one makes some basic (false) assumptions first, members of minorities are not inherently disadvantaged. I include economic background and/or growing up in a high crime neighborhood, which are typically assumed to lower one’s capacity to be educated, ADD, dyslexia and anything else that leads the education industry to label someone “disadvantaged”. Being part of a minority is a factor some disadvantaged people share, but it is not in itself a deciding factor. And there is no consistency between different minorities.

    You also equate all sports and positions played in those sports. Might I suggest you actually watch some sports before you assume that all sports require one uni-type of personality and all non-sports require a different uni-type personality. Personality is virtually irrelevant to this discussion. I am also a little bit surprised by your implication by projection that academics all require the same personality and aptitude profile. My personal observation is that the aptitudes and personality of a head coach are very similar to those of a research director. If you doubt the technicallity of sports, try to learn an NFL playbook and understand how certain plays are indicated and for what reason.

    I doubt that – if academic studies became as competitive as athletics – the athletes would excell at their studies.

    My statement is about reaching one’s own potential. Your ‘equality of outcome’ expectation is neither what I anticipate or intend.

  • Midwesterner


    You are making my case, not breaking it. Athletic education is having its funding cut at every opportunity. In many school districts it is being eliminated entirely and replaced with donation and community sponsored sports.

    You are describing the rare case of the super subsidation of academic education for athletes who compete in sports that make money for an institution.

    And it is the result of their athletic education that is making them worth the investment (to comply with NCAA etc rules) in their academic educations.

  • Midwesterner

    m II p,

    Your example is a harsh, but at least in some cases an accurate, example of how the system works.

    I am curious about some things. How were those first eleven selected for special treatment? Top sports programs all have excellent discovery, evaluation and development programs. You’ve described the development part, can you describe discovery and evaluation part. Also, how did athletics fit in your schools priorities? Did they have a competetive team? Did they care?

  • Nick M

    I think Mid is broadly right. The sad thing is shouldn’t the “hard” sciences be as immune from political meddling as sport?

    Or are they? I refer to a previous thread in which anti-discrimination was supposed to be taught in every lesson, including math.

    Obviously things like sociology have always been the preserve of GROLIES but Calculus seems about as value-neutral as it comes. And no, I don’t give a toss that it was invented/discovered by DWEMs.

  • manuel II paleologos

    The first eleven were selected largely because they were already ace at football at the age of 11 and had been in junior school, but promising new talent occasionally made it in later years. My school had a ruthlessly effective “soccer” setup to the expense of all other sports, although we had a couple of olympic swimmers too (who came through the club system – our school had no pool).

    I think sports is a good analogy for education, but I disagree with the “bah humbug why can’t these lazy people take O levels they never did me any harm” gist of most education-related posts on this site.

    I sometimes resent the way marathon running has become a mass charity parade, but do I really think the country would be better off if marathons went back to being contested by a handful of grizzled athletes who dropped out of they fell below 2:40 pace? Well, not really. Sure, it meant that we had wonderful distance runners at the Olympics, but so what?

  • watcher in the dark

    Midwestern no doubt makes a good point in his post, though seeing the somewhat tedious sport of basketball mentioned tends to numb my mind – and this from a Brit who has attended (and thoroughly enjoyed) Major League Baseball and National Football League games. But each to their own and as I stand a lot less than 6-foot tall I am obviously never going to get into a hoops team.

    The point is that yes, disadvantaged and minority groups do gain a sometimes well-paid career in sports but equally many fall by the wayside, plus a number of pro sportspeople find there is nothing in their future when they are discarded by their game as too old or too infirm from continual injuries.

    In the ‘thirties I believe boxing was the way out of the slums for many hopefuls, but times change. It’s also worth bearing in mind though that the college system in US sports is linked to big business of marketing opportunities, perhaps a message here is that market-driven forces have a part to play in education. It’s just a question of finding how.

    As for results not being rigged, maybe so but I believe there have been a number of issues in US college sports where the academic side has, at times, been “adjusted” for the sporting star.

  • Midwesterner

    So the question to watcher in the dark and any others is:

    Would disadvantaged people with academic aptitudes come as close to achieving their full academic potential as disadvantaged people with athletic aptitudes do to achieving their athletic potential? Why (not)?

    This is the kernel of my point.

  • Midwesterner

    As for results not being rigged, maybe so but I believe there have been a number of issues in US college sports where the academic side has, at times, been “adjusted” for the sporting star.

    That is not a reflection on their athletic education, but rather on its market value to an organization that financially benefits from his ‘work’.

  • Midwesterner

    Ah, Nick, you anticipate me. I have occasionally encountered competition ‘hard sciences’. It does exist sporadically in secondary education in a rather amateur way. It is GREAT!

    Forget this Big Brother crap! I want to see competition engineering. And fictional forensics, so popular right now, let’s see the real thing. “Cops” in the laboratory! Remember the various robot wars competitions? They are a start, but I would like to see these team competitions begin in the lowest elementary classes. I want to see competitions like who can build the tallest tower with the same stack of materials starting in 1 grade. It was the sort of thing I did at that age.

    I want to see major sponsers putting up cash prizes for public competitions at the highest levels. I want to watch the Motorola Cup being fought for by teams who can write the quickest working algorithms for firing a shot to take out the other teams launcher.

    There is money in science. Why can’t there be glamour, intrigue and celebrities as well. I think Richard Feynman was celebrity material. Why is the last ‘Rock Star’ scientist Einstein? Why can’t we celebrate some more. Scientists used to be rock stars. Like Benjamin Franklin.

    Why did we turn science over to career teachers! I think I may disagree with the idea of teaching as a profession and prefer the idea of professionals who teach.

    I’m rambling.

  • RAB

    I think what you are saying is
    there must be a way to make
    Hip and profitable
    Just like Sports, or music or
    if you’re in the UK
    Just being an asshole on reality tv.
    An almost unatainable outcome I’m afraid.
    As far as Britain is concerned, it’s like the old Irish joke tagline
    “Well I wouldn’t be starting from here if I were you sir!”

  • veryretired

    Mid—Did you catch the interview with one of the collegiate stars from the Rose Bowl in which he talked about how the athletes should get a cut from the money generated by the game?

    The fiction of amateur athletics, esp. at the collegiate level in football and basketball, is really starting to unravel. Everything is geared to making money by the tubfull in the pros, and sportmanship and academics are utterly dispensible.

  • Midwesterner

    RAB, it has been in the past. Chicks dug Franklin. And it sure wasn’t for his looks. Einstein was a pop star of epic scale. The nation where this glorification of thinkers comes again will be the top dog. All others will be second class nations. That’s the reality we face.

    I hope your fears are wrong. And in Britain’s 1000+ year history, a history with more than a few would-be despots, there have been many dark hours and as many new days. Let’s hope you guys can pull the rabbit out of the hat yet again.

    Your’s is the most darn comatose population to get to wake up, but when they finally do, they’re invincible. The question is, are they asleep or in a coma?

  • Midwesterner

    VR, I missed that.

    But, in reality, they are already getting it in the form of things that jon referred to. What moral difference would some ‘walking around money’ make. They are expected by their fans and the community to look and act like superstars, all while living on a student budget. Not possible.

    I’m almost always happy to see cultural fictions unravel. We can hope in this case something good can come from it.

    I didn’t remark on your first comment as it seems to stand pretty well alone, but maybe I should. I’ll make some observations on your first five paragraphs.

    In paragraphs one through three you nail solidly the character of what the academic educational process has become.

    In paragraph four, I believe that the reason for “the routine cultural suspicion and derision directed at “eggheads” and “brains”” is because of the general knowledge that the system is rigged. Even when I was in grade school (long time ago) I was coached to figure what answer the teachers want and give it to them. And unfortunately, even then with many teachers kissing up mattered more than knuckling down. And more often than should have been, the teacher and or the books were wrong. Paul Marks has discussed this phenomenon at some length.

    In regard to paragraphs four and five, what do sports and video games have in common? Testing for results. The reason that the socializing and goofing off occurs is a strong perception that the academic system is bogus. The output is rigged. Why waste effort learning when the system’s output is manipulated. Just learn to play the system.

    Your assessment of what our future hangs on? The answer will decide if we have one. The ones who are on the wrong side of the education divide are seeing their futures exported to other countries. They are too big of a proportion of the population for us to survive without a major change of direction.

    Let me know when you get any inklings.

  • RAB

    Personally I’m an insomniac
    But there are only so many doors
    I can bang on in the middle of
    the night. Whether they need waking
    or not.

  • Michiganny


    Bravo on returning everybody else’s volley!

    I consider sport and education altogether different spheres, and I think university participation in professional sports under another name is bad for both the athletes and the scholars.

    It is farcical that people worth, literally, millions to the corporations that advertise during their contests are “paid” so little as to be a pittance. It is disingenuous to say they will make it as professionals at the next level. Do you know how few college athletes make it to the next level? Is it a single digit percentage? For every Chris Webber in the NBA, there are dozens and dozens of former college stars who don’t get paid anything in the pros because they are never signed. But Nike makes money off of them, just like they did Webber, when they use college sports teams as marketing arms. The universities shortchange those athletes.

    And it is a bad thing to corrupt and pervert the ethos of selective universities in the name of athletics. I lucked into an English class once where I was perhaps the only non-athlete. It made me feel good to set the curve, but I am doubtful I learned very much about English in that class. My reading partner is now an NFL linesman making more on any given Sunday than I do in a year. Now, I sincerely hope he plays long enough to get a magnificent pension. That is because I liked him and because he would be almost unemployable–which is a consequence of reading at something less than an eighth grade level–were he to need a new career. Add that to the well documented scandals occurring at my university while I was there: the univeristy hiring a “ringer” to take a basketball recruit’s SAT and players getting free SUVs from a loanshark to throw NCAA games. These guys were taking places that could have gone to people actually there to learn.

    It will never happen, but I think universities should stop parading about as professional athletic organizations and concentrate on scholarship. I do not think it has hurt the Ivy League very much to decline giving athletic scholarships. I wish it were the same at every other school.

  • Midwesterner


    I’m not sure how it effects our agreement or disagreement. But I think college athletes are professionals. The scholarships they receive and the education that some of them get from it is their pay as professional competition athletes.

    Once schools (or clubs or whatever) charge a fee to spectators, and competitors receive anything at all in return, they are to that extent professional.

    In my post, I am referring to the process by which they get good enough that people will pay to see them. This is most definitely an educational process.

    A member of my family went to college on an athletic scholarship, had a career ending injury as a sophomore. The school honored the scholarship which allowed the completion of a baccalaureate in bus admin. While I may question the choice of degree, it is one many pay good money for.

    In my town, there is a well known lawyer. In virtually all of the locally high profile cases, he is representing somebody and quoted by everybody. When I ran for office, he moderated the debates. On a different occasion, he and I discussed athletic scholarships and he told me that he went to Harvard and played quarterback with financial assistance. (They may not always call them athletic scholarships, but they have aid that is used for similar effect.) He said that without that aid, he could never have afforded to attend a school of that quality.

    An athletic scholarship is not an athletic education so much as it is a compensation of a professional employee for their work product. When fees are charged to spectators, any difference in the treatment of competitors makes those athletes professionals.

    Rather than “altogether different spheres” I say they are progressively different spheres.

  • Observer

    Sounds like yet another argument for entirely divorcing high-stakes, high-$ competitive athletics and universities. I’m down with that.