Making the grade to make the team


Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Allie O'Hora | 14 years, 10 months ago

Student athletes deterred by eligibility requirements


Junior Quentin Snively squints towards the sun, his eyes following the basketball as it leaves his outstretched palms in a graceful arc. It sinks into the net with a satisfying swish. Snively spends most of his lunch periods the same way he has since he was in second grade - out on the school basketball courts with friends, engaged in a casual game of four-on-four.

He is, by all accounts, a basketball fanatic; outside of school, Snively plays for a Division I league on weekends, occasionally drills with a private coach and devotes most of his free time to practicing. He spends his summers playing at elite invitational camps. But despite his extensive skill and experience, Snively has never played basketball for Blair. Because his GPA is below 2.0, he is not eligible to try out for school sports teams.

As one of many athletic Blazers barred from playing Blair sports because of academic prerequisites, Snively's story is hardly unusual. Current Montgomery County policy stipulates that students must have a 2.0 GPA, and no more than one failing grade, before they can participate in extracurricular activities. Based on these requirements, as many as 845 Blazers _ approximately 25 percent of the student body _ currently do not qualify to participate in the sports program. Ineligibility is an increasingly serious problem among those talented would-be athletes who, like Snively, fail to meet the academic requirements of the policy.

The athletic achievement gap

Blair has recently pioneered the use of an eligibility database to prevent those ineligible students, like Snively, from even trying out for a school sports team. During tryouts, coaches can input the identification numbers of all prospective players into a school-wide database which records the GPA of each student for each quarter of the academic year, enabling coaches to cut any ineligible athlete. According to Joseph Bellino, the Blair teacher who authored the database program, Blair is currently the only Montgomery County high school with this capability.

This same program is also used by the school staff to track the eligibility of current and past athletes throughout the school year. Despite coaches' best efforts to monitor and prevent ineligibility, however, many student athletes still struggle to maintain their grades once the season has ended. According to the database, of the 525 Blair students who participated in a school-sponsored sport last year, 86 - 17 percent - were ineligible during one or more quarters of the off-season.

MCPS policy dictates that any student who becomes ineligible during the season must be removed immediately from the team. The rigid consequences are designed to prevent recurrence of academic failure, according to Blair athletic director Dale Miller. "[Students] who become ineligible… [are] encouraged to get to study halls and academic support so it doesn't happen again," he says.

A junior was barred from the JV softball team when her GPA fell after the first semester of her freshman year. She acknowledges that the extensive time commitment required of athletes may have contributed to her poor grades, but she questions whether her removal was justified. "School and sports are separate, and the policy keeps people who don't achieve academically from being able to achieve in other areas," she says. "[The rule] is a bad idea. It just made problems worse."

Despite the rigidity of the academic requirements, not all Blazers are opposed to the policy. Junior Deandrey Woodward, an avid football player, chooses instead to compete in several leagues outside of Blair because his grades prevent him from participating in school sports. Despite this, Woodward believes that the policy provides positive motivation, an objective for would-be athletes to strive for. "When you play a sport, you know your [grades are passable]," he says. "So I guess it's good in a way."

However, there is a significant drawback to the policy: by prohibiting students with low GPAs from participating, it dramatically decreases the athletic talent pool at Blair, since some gifted players do not meet the eligibility requirements. "At Blair, we have a hard time keeping students eligible from one year to the next. It's the reason we can't compete with other schools," says JV football coach Earl Lindsey.

School first, sports second

To combat their players' slipping grades, many Blair coaches have initiated after-school study hall programs for their athletes. Although by law, school officials may not make attendance mandatory, coaches say that even without complete participation, such programs are an effective approach to the ineligibility issue.

Basketball coach Orlando Larracuente proctors such a program for his own players, giving them an opportunity to get their schoolwork done before they ever get on the court. "I try to provide an environment where they can succeed," he says. "These kids are busting their tails to represent Blair. The least I can do is to help them where they're struggling."

Lindsey recently instituted a similar study hall policy for the football team, which has been historically plagued by ineligibility. Lindsey says the tactic has already produced significant improvement.

Both coaches affirm their conviction that school, not sports, should remain the priority for student athletes. "School is first," says Lindsey. "I'm a teacher first and a coach second." Larracuente echoes his sentiments: "It's about education," he says. "The NBA is not the goal. College, university - that's what I want to be the goal."

Indeed, today's college athletes are held to increasingly exacting educational standards as universities strive for comprehensive academic achievement. The University of Maryland, for example, gives substantial consideration to grades when weighing the merits of prospective recruits. Zina Evans, director of undergraduate admissions for the University of Maryland at College Park, explains that their admissions policy is derived from the belief that a strong academic foundation is the most essential element in any successful college athlete. "I've seen kids who've… had coaches and teachers who just let the grades slide over the years, banking on an athletic scholarship," she says. "But they're not doing them any favors if they end up failing out of college because they can't keep up with advanced coursework." Because of this problem, she says, she supports high-school ineligibility policies, since they require participants to demonstrate an ability to balance athletics and academics.

Clearly, this kind of balancing act is difficult for many of Blair's student athletes to pull off, but Snively is hopeful - he says he plans to split his time between schoolwork and sports this quarter. He hopes to improve his grades enough to be able to try out for the basketball team this winter. Perhaps, he says, the very policy that restricted him will serve as a means of motivation. "It'd be nice to be on the team," he says wistfully. "I don't know… maybe this year."




Allie O'Hora. Allie O'Hora is a CAP senior. If you make fun of her last name, she will kill you and make it look like an accident. More »

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