Opinion: Scandal Shows Misplaced HS Sports Priorities

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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)


The grade-changing scandal at Trezevant High School might be the tip of an iceberg. Or it might be an anomalous blemish on the face of a clean interscholastic sports program at Shelby County Schools. The public won't find out until the expanding investigation fills out the full picture.

Whatever the case, the alleged favoritism bestowed on football players at Trezevant over the past few years should catch the attention of anyone who follows high school or college sports or cares about the integrity of the public schools.

The scandal demonstrates how priorities can be misplaced when the passion for success on the field or on the court outweighs the educational mission.

So far the investigation has turned up hundreds of instances in which grades were changed at a number of schools, including Trezevant, where a football coach faces termination and a secretary resigned under fire.

Both are implicated in an alleged scheme to boost the school's graduation rate and to make students eligible to play sports in college. In some cases, grades were changed multiple times in what, according to investigators, looks like the manipulation of students' grade-point averages, one of the factors in determining college admission eligibility.

The findings throw two state football championships into question and, more importantly and unfortunately, teach the student-athletes in question that, as long as their performance on the field meets expectations, what happens in the classroom is not important.

Participation in high school sports can teach kids some valuable lessons about teamwork, leadership, the importance of a strong work ethic and the like, but winning at all costs distorts those messages and can drive players, coaches, administrators and fans into destructive behavior and more trouble down the road.

Consider the angst and considerable financial cost that have been generated by the University of Tennessee's recently completed search for a new football coach to replace the underperforming Butch Jones.

By the time Alabama assistant Jeremy Pruitt's name was on the contract, a former Penn State assistant's name had been dragged through the mud because of a sex scandal that he apparently had nothing to do with and UT and its boosters were in the process of wasting millions of dollars that could have been spent on the school's academic mission.

Recent high school athlete recruiting excesses also have cost the University of Mississippi's football program a self-imposed financial penalty of almost $200,000, a three-year probation, 13 scholarships over a four-year period and additional recruiting restrictions.

Legendary Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino lost his job and 10 others have been arrested as the result of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting.

The pity is that none of this would qualify as unique or even surprising, given the money and prestige that lie tantalizing within reach among those with access to high school athletes with the skills to move on to college or perhaps even professional careers.

And little change can be expected until enough fans grow tired of the scandals and insist that the games they love are played with integrity and cheaters will no longer be tolerated.

Grade changing and other shortcuts to success are short-sighted and ultimately costly to athletes and the sports they play. Interscholastic sports is often described as a character-building exercise, but the opposite is too often the case.

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December 17, 2017


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