Academic eligibility for student-athletes in public high school athletic programs across America has many variations and has been changing over the past twenty years. But how far have we come in motivating athletes in the classroom? The term student-athlete implies that the person involved with education and athletics is both a good student in the classroom and an active and effective participant on an athletic team. In theory, academic competence is a criterion for athletic participation. It has been proven that high school athletes tend to have a higher grade point average (GPA) than nonathletes (Eitzen & Saga, 1993). As school districts and athletic directors work to show accountability to the parents and taxpayers in their respective communities through the revision of athletic codes, it is important to address the issue of student athlete academic performance.
Efforts to reform academic eligibility for high school athletes began in 1983, amid strong resistance from coaches, parents, and others (Wolf, 1983). The Los Angles Unified School District instituted a rule that stated, “To be eligible for participation in extracurricular activities students must maintain a C average in four subjects and have no failures” (Eitzen & Sage, 1989). In 1984 the state of Texas introduced a “No Pass No Play” rule that stated that athletes could not have any failing grades if they were to participate in a sporting activity (Richards, 1987). Initially, a large group of students became ineligible to compete and there was strong opposition from coaches and parents. But in a matter of two years, in both of these instances, the percentage of students who were declared ineligible was the same as before the rule was enacted. Since these initial attempts at academic eligibility in interscholastic athletics in the 80s, how far have the high school athletic programs come in challenging the student athletes in actually being good students? Are more schools demanding grade points for athletic eligibility? How long are the academic eligibility suspensions? The intent of this study is to compare school athletic programs throughout America in order to identify current trends in high school athletics in challenging athletes to become better students.
The researcher randomly selected 125 high schools across 48 states and compared their requirements for athletic eligibility. The focus was on four specific academic eligibility areas: 1) minimum individual grade point average for athletic participation, 2) maximum number of Fs that an athlete can have and still participate, 3) the time frame for athletic-academic suspension for athletes that don’t achieve the minimum requirements, and 4) a adherence to individual state association guidelines for academic eligibility.
Minimum Individual Grade Point Average
Minimum grade points for athletic participation in interscholastic sports ranged from no minimum grade point to 2.5. Some of the schools didn’t include a grade point but demanded a percentage grade to be met in all classes (70% or 60%). Many of the schools included in the study have considered including a grade point in their academic standards for their athletes but coaching staffs have strongly opposed this move. Of the 125 schools included in the study, only 31 schools indicated that they had incorporated a minimum grade point for athletic eligibility; only 19 had a grade point of 2.0 or above. Student-athletes in 94 of the 125 schools could be eligible to participate in athletics with a grade point of 1.0 and less. On the low end a student could be eligible to play in some of these schools by passing 4 of 7 courses with 4 Ds and 3 Fs (GPA 0.71). The most stringent of the schools in this study required a grade point average of 2.5, with students receiving no Fs, in order to be eligible to participate in the interscholastic athletic program. It should be mentioned that all states require a minimum unit of courses that students must be enrolled in order to even participate in athletic programs. A unique policy found in 4 schools in this study required students to have attendance rates of 80% or better to participate along with the academic criteria.
Maximum Number of Failing Grades
After grade point average for athletic eligibility, the most popular criteria in many of the schools is the number of Fs a student-athlete can earn in his/ her academic load per semester. I found that the number of Fs a student can have and still be eligible ranged from no Fs (no pass no play) to three. Of the 125 schools, 23 indicated that their athletes could have no Fs for athletic eligibility. Fifteen schools indicated that their athletes could have 2 or 3 Fs and still participate; seven of these 15 schools included a GPA requirement. The most common academic standard for the number of Fs a student could have was that the student-athlete could still participate with one F; this was indicated by 87 schools in the study. In all of the schools, an incomplete was treated as an F or non-passing grade.
Academic suspension from athletic participation for an athlete varied considerably for the 125 schools in this study. Suspensions ranged from one week to a half of a school year. Athletes found ineligible had different ways in which to gain their eligibility back again. Twelve schools in the study had weekly grade checks; students who brought their grades up to passing could become eligible in as little as seven days. A large number of the schools (56) imposed academic suspensions of three weeks, fifteen school days, or 21 calendar days; students who were put on probation became eligible at the end of this time period if their grades met the minimal requirements. The schools that had the strictest penalties imposed suspensions that lasted the entire grading period, ranging from six weeks to a full semester. Some innovative ideas on how high schools are dealing with academic suspension include weekly grade checks, having the honor society run a study hall for the athletes, and having coaches coordinating academic study halls for ineligible athletes.
Adherence to State Guidelines
All forty-eight state athletic associations recommended some form of academic eligibility requirements for student participation in interscholastic sports; however, most were very limited. The requirements ranged from just being enrolled in a minimum number of courses, to a combination of a minimum number of courses, no Fs, a minimum grade point average, and an attendance policy. Of the 125 schools included in this study, 75 schools followed the minimum requirement set by their respective state associations while 50 schools exceeded state association criteria. Of the 48 states represented in the study only six recommended or required a minimum grade point average be included as part of the academic criteria for athletic eligibility. In Ohio, association guidelines recommend that individual schools should set their own GPA requirements. In only four states did all high schools in the state follow the rules specifically set up for academic eligibility by the state associations; in all other cases, individual schools developed their own participation policies with varying results in terms of stringency.
As this study indicates, only a small percentage of high schools in the United States have attached a minimum GPA to their academic requirements for athletic eligibility. The schools that had minimal standards justified these standards by stating that athletics keep kids in school; if they were not eligible to participate in athletics, these students would drop out of school. Some of the schools in the study indicated that they incorporated a grade point to their eligibility but later removed this criterion from their athletic code because of opposition from coaches and parents. Additional arguments from athletic directors defending low academic requirements included that athletic programs must remain student-friendly and that all students, no matter what their grades, should have the right to participate. A number of athletic directors reported that they would like to have even lower academic requirements than those already in place.
In schools that had strong academic requirements, athletic directors reported students adjusted to the requirements once they were set in place. One athletic director in New Mexico stated that kids know what the minimum grade point average is to be eligible so they will do what is required. In fact, he even thought that they could raise the grade point to 2.5 and the student-athletes would adjust in a matter of time. One high school in Alaska that had a minimum grade point average of 2.5 retained the right to hold an athlete out if the coaches felt that the student-athlete was not performing up to his or her potential, even if the student had a 3.0.
In a time when public school educational programs are under heavy scrutiny, athletic programs with low academic standards are only hurting themselves by letting their athletes just get by. The athletic programs in this study that have challenged their students in the classroom with higher academic standards over a longer period of time have been successful in improving the students’ grade point averages. Students adjusted to the academic demands set by the athletic programs and the number of students that were declared ineligible was consistent with the number that were declared ineligible under the lower academic requirement.
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