The Discarded Student-Athlete

It’s common to read and hear the chattering classes on ESPN and other places talk about college athletes being used by their institutions to make big bucks while the “student-athlete” is left with nothing to show for his labors.  Frequently, the athlete can’t afford to live away from home and resorts to activities that violate NCAA rules just to get by while on campus (see the Ohio State football mess; also the allegations against the University of Miami).  University presidents and athletic directors routinely say they did the athletes a favor by offering them an education.  But many of those athletes couldn’t readily access that education either because they lacked the academic heft to have been admitted to the school without their athletic prowess or they simply lacked the interest in being educated–they’re only there for their sport and the chance to make it to the professional level.  All this does the athlete a great disservice, not to mention that it sullies the schools, too, but that’s for another time.

It’s less common to hear of athletes getting chewed up and spit out at the high school level.  But it happens.  Here’s one story.  Fair Warning:  The story has been related to me second-hand.  I have not personally spoken to the family or the young man involved.  That said, I am confident enough in the sources to share the tale here.

A young man from a family we know through mutual friends was a stand-out high school athlete on a team that would perennially contend for state championships.

Sadly, the young man faced challenges.  He abused alcohol and drugs throughout his high school career.  The athletic department knew this.  His coaches knew this. His parents knew this.  Despite professing “zero tolerance” for violations of the substance use policy, the young man was allowed to continue to participate; to continue to contribute to the team’s goals and to position himself for a major college scholarship.

Verily, the scholarship offers arrived from schools with great academic and athletic reputations.  He picked one early in his senior year and was ready to go.  He participated in events all through his senior year while continuing to have run-ins with the administration about his consumption.  But he never lost his spot on the team.

It was a great senior season.  The team did well.  The young man contributed to a state championship. Records were broken; celebrations were had.

Following the conclusion of the season, there was another incident.  Then and only then did the school take action against the young man.  They kicked him off the team.  After they had used up his skills and time and overlooked his problems long enough to hang another banner from the rafters, they were done with him.  It cost him his scholarship.  Even though he did nothing differently than had been previously tolerated during the season, they took an action that his prospective college couldn’t abide and he lost his ride.

I am in no way excusing the young man’s behavior.  He knew the rules and apparently violated them repeatedly.  Had the coaching staff followed their own procedures–you know, the ones that they use on the kids that aren’t stars on the team, where they kick the kid off so fast it makes your head spin–perhaps the young man could have better addressed his issues.  He would not have been so successful and the team might have suffered, but a chance at intervention would not have been missed.

In college, this happens quite often.  It’s referred to as a “money in the bank” approach to violations and punishment.  This is how the NCAA dealt with Reggie Bush at USC and later with the Ohio State problems.  Investigations were said to be underway, but no one was disputing the principal facts.  The players and coaches involved were cleared by the NCAA to play in their respective bowl games and generate giant television revenues for the NCAA and its member schools.  Only after the money is in the bank does the punishment come down.

The cynicism of the school and athletic administration in how they dealt with this young man is shocking and infuriating.  The school and the coaches used this young man just as surely as college athletes are used and discarded by their institutions.  But this is high school.  High.  School.  When they were finished with him, they spit him out and left him and his family to deal with an even bigger wreck than their might have been had they acted when they first confronted the problem.

I’m afraid to ask what happened next.

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