Is It Student-Athlete or Athlete-Student?

I just read the book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley. Ripley travels to Finland, South Korea, and Poland to compare the experiences of American students while learning abroad. And while there have probably been some minor changes since the book’s initial release in 2013, many of the concerns Ripley raises still exist. The culture in America in youth athletics is the concern that resonated most with me.

Ripley’s research led to many startling statistics. Ninety percent of American teenagers agree that sports take up greater emphasis than academics. Six out of ten students who came from outside the U.S. agreed with that sentiment. According to the most important stakeholder in the education equation (the students) we should be referring to them as athlete first, and student second. And the adults are complicit in creating this reality of athlete-student instead of student-athlete.

College, High School, and Grassroots Gone Wrong

Students accept that athletics come first when the adults that are leading the way allow them to. The incentive systems are different at different levels, but the incentives at all levels of the athletic world (particularly basketball) are sending athletes the wrong message.


It is hardly a secret that colleges lower admission standards for athletes. After admittance the time athletes spend in the classroom is often less than their athletic competition. One Sociology Professor reported that football and basketball players spent three times as much time on athletics as compared to academics.

Around the Horn guest and author Kate Fagan wrote a moving book called What Made Maddy Run. Fagan details a depressed Penn student-athlete that committed suicide. Finding balance as a student-athlete played a role in the suicide. Even the athlete that does not have professional aspirations is challenged to make academics the chief priority.

High School

Most high schools require athletes to have multiple F’s on a report card at the high school level before intervening. After reading Ripley’s account, the concept of flunking off the team may be too soft. What we are conveying is “as long as you have a D, keep spending all your time and energy on perfecting your free throw form.”

Youth Levels

Youth leagues do not even bother to cross-pollinate between athletics and academics. There are those coaches who make it a priority to emphasize academics with their players, but it is more exception than rule across different competitive levels. At the most competitive level, negative adults like Joe Keller and Sonny Vaccaro have placed a premium on profits ahead of the academic and social interests of the young boys they coach.

Are School Standards Too Low?

This anecdote from Ripley’s book of a Helsinki student studying in the United States indicates a lack of rigor:

“Elina came to America from Helsinki when she was sixteen…Back home she’d been a good student. In America, she was exceptional…On her first test, she got 105 percent. Until then, Elina had thought it was mathematically impossible to get 105 percent on anything. She thought she might have more trouble in U.S. history class, since she was not, after all, American. Luckily, her teacher gave the class a study guide that contained all the questions – and answers – to the exam. On test day, Elina coasted through the questions because, well, she’d seen them in advance. When the teacher handed the tests back, Elina was unsurprised to see she’d gotten an A. She was amazed, however, to see that some of the other students had gotten C’s. One of them looked at her and laughed at the absurdity. ‘How is it possible you know this stuff?’ ‘How is it possible you don’t know this stuff?’ Elina answered.”

What Are We Emphasizing

It is only one account, and different students offer diverse excuses (some of them legitimate) that counter Elina’s perspective. Finns push students regardless of circumstances. Teachers actually want to know less about their students’ personal lives because they will ease up in their expectations. In other words, teachers do not go easier on a student because he or she is the starting point guard. In fact, schools and athletics are not linked at all in Finland, South Korea, or Poland.

The barometer that most athletes must meet is to be passing. To pass a student might not need to do homework or study. They can pay attention for some of the class, get the stuff on the lower shelf correct, and never be required to stretch. Meanwhile, they are spending five hours on basketball for a road game on a week night. They are expected to memorize plays and defensive concepts. Yet, they might not memorize basic math facts. They read scouting reports and lift weights. Yet, they might read SparkNotes and do not lift actual books. If the standards were raised, would the athletes respond?

Parental Priorities Are Questionable

In American culture, parents support their children on the courts and fields. And this is a good thing. It is a way to show that they love and care their children. They buy shin pads and gym shorts, and help keep the water bottle filled. Their children are getting the many benefits that are derived from playing sports: teamwork, exercise, perseverance, etc.

The troubling part as Ripley wrote, is that their efforts in athletics are not close to being met in academics. “Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergartners learn math while they still loved numbers. They did show up to complain about bad grades, however. And they came out in droves with video cameras and lawn chairs and full hearts, to watch their children play sports.”

It is almost as if the mindset of what is wrong with sports spills over into the classroom. Parents get consumed in did the child play enough or score enough. They also get manipulated by the scoreboard. They refuse to allow their child to navigate a perceived injustice. And when the bad test score comes out, there are those parents that seek to immediately rectify the situation. It could be that their child did not study. Or it could also be that their child is grade levels behind their peers.

The problem does not matter in the eyes of the parent if the result is different. If their child plays more it does not matter that they never use the left hand. If the grade gets moved from a B to an A it does not matter that their child cannot articulate what the water cycle is.

How to encourage both sports and academics?

Finland’s education is superior in many ways to American education. Schools will never ban sports, but even if Congress mandated the removal of sports we would not catch up to Finland academically. And if that is not reason enough to keep sports a high priority, there are countless great role models out there who love to coach. I firmly believe sports enhance character education in a way academic education cannot. Sports offers an answer to motivation that students struggle with globally in academics.

The question is not how to tear down sports. The current is pushing way too hard in the other direction. What I asked myself is how do I use sports as a vehicle to promote rigorous education.

Changing the Conversation

In the off-season, I ask my players for three goals. One goal relates to basketball. The two remaining goals are open-ended. Two of my players chose goals related to books this year. One chose one related to helping younger students (she wants to be a teacher). Another told me she enjoyed math and wanted to explore Khan Academy this summer.

It is a start, but there is still room for growth. The basketball season is long. Practices are two hours. That does not include the expectation of getting there early at times and reflecting after practice. Plus, players will need to travel to and from practice and shower once they get home. All of the structured time results in student-athlete burn out.

Ambition is often misplaced. Win at all costs is not for me was probably never a phrase that fit. Compete at all costs or balance at all costs is probably more in line. Checking in with the players on the team must go well beyond let me see your report card. There needs to be conversations surrounding their passions, why what they learn is important, and how to fall in love with learning past our archaic grading systems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *