"Lowering the bar" for athletes

May 20, 2004, midnight | 20 years ago

I would like to offer a counter opinion to two articles written earlier in the school year regarding athletic ineligibility at Blair. As the varsity baseball coach, assistant athletic director and Blair alumnus (class of 1980), it pains me that our athletic teams have not been as successful recently as some of our up-county rivals, but there are understandable reasons for this, and I think the aforementioned articles are somewhat misleading in their representations of cause and effect.

For example, in the February issue of Silver Chips, the writer of the opinion piece "Suffering sports burn a hole in Blazer pride" correctly points out some socio-economic reasons why Blair is unable to compete on the same level as schools which are more affluent and that have a greater abundance of youth opportunities for kids before they reach high school. Obviously, herein lies the problem. Although Blair boasts the largest student body in Montgomery County, our athletic population is really quite small.

We have a lot of students from countries that don't participate in mainstream athletics. We have a lot of "wannabe" athletes who have not played at competitive levels before they come to Blair and so have not received the training or discipline necessary for them to participate at the level that a varsity program demands. We have a lot of students who have to provide financially, in part, for their family and cannot commit to the practice schedule that a varsity program demands. And yes, we have our academic ineligibility rate.

As a teacher and a coach, I would love to see more of our students academically eligible to participate in extra-curricular activities if it is their choice to do so. However, as a realist, I know that proposals whereby we revise the existing eligibility rules (as suggested in the March issue of Silver Chips in "PTSA proposes eligibility rules") or upgrade our tutoring or study hall policies thereby making it "easier" for ineligible athletes to participate will not only fail to make much of a difference in the success of our athletic programs, but in some cases will be counter productive.

Over the years I have seen a great number of academically challenged student athletes maintain their eligibility by simply being responsible. If you come to class every day, seek help when you need it, pay attention while you are in class and do the minimum of what is asked of you, a 2.0 GPA is not at all difficult to attain. This is much more a matter of being responsible than it is of being intelligent. Personally, I don't want to coach irresponsible students. How are they going to manage to come to practice every day on time, bring their practice clothes and game uniform or remember plays and signals and other intricacies of the game if they are irresponsible about school and schoolwork?

And how can we expect this struggling student to throw three hours a day of practice into his or her life and then expect that athlete to start doing their homework and attending study halls when they weren't doing any of it before and were still ineligible?

The truth is that we would be "lowering the bar" or enabling such students to a certain degree and to what end? Are these revisions in policy going to give us the state championships that writer is calling for? I think not. I would rather coach hard working kids who show dedication and improvement both in and out of the classroom than compromise my values of what an athlete should be by keeping a student of questionable character for the chance of winning an extra game or two.

What bothers me more than the writer of the opinion piece, a Blair student herself, placing blame on the athletic department and its coaches for this dilemma, is her assertion that Blair is losing star athletes as a result of our inability to get it together and that other schools are doing a much better job in this regard. Every public school loses athletes to private schools. It is an unavoidable fact that we (coaches) all deal with. Personally, I care a great deal more about the players we do have than the ones who go elsewhere, but since it was brought up why not address it accurately?

Private schools are filled with hundreds of athletes who would be attending school somewhere else. Not all of them would have gone to Blair. The St. Albans soccer, basketball and baseball player mentioned in the article is no different from any such athlete whose parents choose that route. More power to him. The female athlete, however, is a different story altogether. The writer referred to her as a "star athlete" who was let down by "Blair's inability to keep her eligible." What?

I know that one of her coaches met with her almost every day after school to help tutor her on his own time. I don't think he let her down. It sounds more like she let him, herself and her teammates down. And, with no disrespect intended, the student in question might be a three-sport starter and star athlete where she goes to school now, but she was not here at Blair where the competition, both to make the team and by our opponents, is a big step up from what she is dealing with in her present situation. But she is doing better in school now, so more power to her as well.

The writer also interviewed Karl Heimbach, athletic director of
Magruder high school and held him up to be some sort of expert on eligibility and held Magruder up to be a "perennial powerhouse." Really? Why wasn't our athletic director, Dale Miller, featured more prominently in a story about Blair athletics in our school newspaper?

Recently in a boys lacrosse contest, a number of players and its head coach from Magruder, were ejected for their inappropriate conduct during a game in which they wound up cursing and throwing their equipment on the field of play.

The players and their coach were suspended for the next game as a result of these actions and a Blair coach who was in attendance described it as "one of the worst displays of sportsmanship that I have ever witnessed." Now I won't speak for all sports or all years, but I don't see Blair athletes and coaches behaving in such a manner and I know that the baseball team (which I coach) has beaten Magruder more than they've beaten us since I've been coaching.

Let's take an even closer look. Earlier this month, the aforementioned
Mr. Heimbach advertised nine coaching vacancies at Magruder for next year. Nine! That seems like an awful lot of coaches leaving a perennial powerhouse. He was quoted in the opinion piece as saying that "ineligibility among athletes at Magruder is controlled" and that "the GPA of all our teams combined is well above 3.0." Wow, what a great job they are doing over there.

Come on now, are we really that bad? We do not need to lower our eligibility standards and we do not need to compare ourselves unfavorably with other schools. Athletes (and yes, this includes freshmen) need to take responsibility for their own GPAs and students need to take pride in their teams even if they are not state champions. We may not be the perennial powerhouse that Magruder and other up-county schools are with regard to athletics, but I'd rather coach our kids any day and leave the others to their private schools and their spoiled utopias.

John MacDonald
Health teacher and Blair baseball coach

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