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Tom West: Academic, athletic priorities out of whack

When the heat wave broke Wednesday evening, it signaled the first stirrings that summer is on the wane. School will soon be resuming. In just a couple of weeks, in fact, the fall athletic season will start.

When the heat wave broke Wednesday evening, it signaled the first stirrings that summer is on the wane. School will soon be resuming. In just a couple of weeks, in fact, the fall athletic season will start.
I have been thinking about the state of high school athletics lately, because three basketball coaches I know in southern Minnesota were all fired or resigned under pressure in one week. All three were good coaches, and one had coached at the same high school for 32 years and had a winning percentage better than two-thirds.
That in turn reminded me of some of the grumbling I heard about East Hockey Coach Mike Randolph last winter, after the Greyhounds failed to return to the state tournament. Coming off a state runner-up finish the previous year, one got the idea from these critics that Randolph was inept. I beg to differ.
Then, a few weeks ago John Gilbert, our sports reporter, wrote a story about one player leaving high school after ninth grade to play hockey and another transferring to Greenway of Coleraine to increase his chances of playing in the state hockey tournament.
Does anybody besides me think there is something major wrong with high school athletics today?
We live in a nation which had to open up the floodgates of immigration in recent years because we are failing to produce the technical and scientific workers we need to keep our high-powered economy growing. And yet, too many of us are more worried about junior's jump shot or slap shot than we are about whether junior can read, do math or has any other skills that will be applicable after he turns, say, 35 or 40.
Loyalty to the group is also disappearing at a rapid pace. A year and a half ago, Joel Pryzbilla quit the Minnesota Gopher basketball team in a dispute with Coach Dan Monson. Monson had the curious notion that as a college student, Pryzbilla should go to class. At the time of the quitting, many sports fans moaned that Pryzbilla had let down his teammates, the university and the state.
Pryzbilla is from Monticello. I run into the publisher of the Monticello newspaper, Don Smith, a couple of times a year at newspaper meetings. A few months after Pryzbilla had quit and a couple of weeks before the National Basketball Association draft, I asked Smith what the people of Monticello thought of their hometown hero. He said, "They think in two weeks he's going to be a millionaire."
They were right, of course, but count me as one who thought Pryzbilla let down his teammates. (It's a stretch to think athletics are important enough that his quitting let down the university or the state.)
It's as if parents all over the state are using their children like a lottery ticket, hoping that -- like Pryzbilla, or Venus and Serena Williams or Tiger Woods -- their child will take them to the promised land of big-money pro sports.
Their chances are only marginally better than winning the Power Ball.
I have a friend who built a gymnasium for his son. The gym looks like a quonset hut on the outside, but inside it has the actual basketball floor that was put over the ice at the old Met Center in Bloomington. My friend's son became a high school hoops star, and earned a scholarship to play basketball at North Dakota. He lasted one year, and then transferred to another school, where he decided not to play basketball.
An outcome like that is far more likely than becoming the next Tiger Woods.
I think it is time for the high schools and the Minnesota State High School League to put athletics in perspective. They may not be able to prevent the overzealous meddling of parents, but at least they can re-emphasize that academics take priority over athletics, and put athletics in their proper place. Here's my five-step program to fix Minnesota high school athletics:
1. Allow no child to transfer under open enrollment to any school district whose results on standardized statewide tests are in the bottom half in either reading or math. (Greenway eighth-graders, by the way, tested above average in math, but fell just below average in reading in 2001.)
2. Prohibit the firing of any first-, second- or third-year coach and any coach with a career winning record, except for the same causes that allow for the firing of an academic teacher.
3. Prohibit the playing of any interscholastic athletic contests that would end under normal circumstances after 7 p.m. on a school night (Sunday through Thursday). Students need to come to school every day prepared to learn. It is indefensible for schools to schedule athletic events that require students to ride a bus until midnight or 1 a.m. on a school night.
4. Prohibit the playing of any interscholastic games on any day that requires students to miss class time to travel to the event site.
5. Encourage officials to call technical fouls or bench penalties on fans, and ban any fan, parent or not, who gets two such infractions from attending games for a month. After three infractions ban them for a year and after four ban them for life.
Sports fans, particularly parents of players, are known for being vocal on behalf of their teams. However, at some point, school officials, board members and legislators need to make a stand for academics and sportsmanship.
The current system allows the wrong values to flourish, values which this community, state and nation cannot afford if we are to compete globally for the remainder of this century.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by at 723-1207 or e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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