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Education loses in La.

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“I stressed academics, and my players will tell you that,” basketball coach John Wooden once said. “They were here to get an education. That’s number one and must always be number one.”

A majority of members of the Louisiana House Education Committee do not agree with Wooden’s assessment of academics. To them, athletics and extra-curricular activities trump academics.

The House panel recently voted 10-7 to reject House Bill 128 that would have, as the local newspaper The Advocate describe it, “gradually required public high school athletes and others to earn at least a 2.0 grade-point average” to participate in extra-curricular activities.

The current minimum GPA for participation in athletics and other extra-curricular activities in Louisiana is 1.5 on a 4.0 grading scale — which amounts to about a D+.

I juxtaposed Wooden’s view of education with that of the House Education Committee’s vote on purpose. You see, John Wooden is not just any coach. He is regarded as perhaps the most successful men’s basketball coach of all time.

If Wooden were just another coach accustomed to losing, the Louisiana House Education Committee could ignore his philosophy of education first. The members could simply excuse his views as justification for his team’s lack of achievement on the court. However, Wooden was not accustomed to losing.

Best known for the 27 years he coached at UCLA, Wooden had only one losing season in his entire coaching career that spanned 32 seasons. It came in his very first year of coaching, at Dayton High School in Kentucky.

At UCLA, Wooden’s teams won 10 NCAA basketball championships — including seven in a row. His teams had four undefeated seasons and a winning streak of 88 games, still an NCAA record.

Despite all of the success his teams had on the court, Wooden always stressed winning in the classroom. “I had one player that didn’t get his degree until 20 years after he left,” Wooden once recollected, “and he said he finally went back to school to get it, just to get me off his back.”

Wooden stressed academics because he knew that the majority of his players were not going to star in the NBA. Some would — and did -– most did not. He also knew that a professional basketball career is short-lived and could be cut even shorter by an injury. Education, in Wooden’s estimation, was the key to long-term success.

The Louisiana House Education Committee lacks both Wooden’s understanding of academics and long-term perspective of education, as does the Louisiana School Boards Association and Louisiana High School Athletic Association –- both opposed House Bill 128.

The vast majority of high school athletes will never make the roster of a college sports team. Their future success –- their long-term success — hinges not on how hard they work on the field or the court, but on how hard they work in the classroom.

One member of the committee commented that while a 1.5 GPA might be below average, it is not failing. Other members opposing the bill feared that athletes unable to rise to the 2.0 standard would drop out of school. According to The Advocate, one lawmaker said that passage of the bill would “rob struggling students of needed guidance that coaches provide.” The representative went on to say, “They get things from coaching and other players that they don’t get at home.”

Using the aforementioned logic, why have any standards at all? There are some athletes who don’t meet the current 1.5 GPA standard. Perhaps we should abandon all academic criteria so they won’t miss out on what coaches and other players can provide for them.

For the record, I support high school athletics. I lettered in three sports in high school. My oldest son just received his first varsity letter. I believe that sports are tremendous for instilling discipline, character and team work. That said, if the discipline and character learned in athletics doesn’t translate over to the classroom, what’s the point?

I don’t want to be too hard on the Louisiana House Education Committee. They are nothing more than a reflection of a society that, as a whole, has come to value athletics more than academics.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has an ongoing television ad campaign designed to stress the importance of academics. Each commercial ends with the tag line, “There are over 380,000 NCAA student-athletes and just about all of them will be going pro in something other than sports.”

What is true for NCAA athletes is even more so for those that participate in high school sports. Hence, academic achievement must be stressed to high school athletes.

I am sure John Wooden smiles each time he sees the aforementioned NCAA commercial. When 10 members of the Louisiana House Education Committee see it, they should cringe.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs