Guest Column: Rockford Public Schools’ new athletic policy: Failure on Demand

By Tim Hughes

The Rockford Board of Education recently announced that sports are more important than education. What other conclusion can one draw from its new athletic eligibility policy code name “Failure on Demand,” which allows students to fail subjects needed for graduation while continuing to play sports?

The Register Star scratched its editorial head trying to decide whether such a policy was a good idea, then announced it was not retreating from its core principle while sounding retreat from its core principle by endorsing Failure on Demand.

Sports columnist Matt Trowbridge and Rockford Next blogger Vern Hilton praised Failure on Demand. Hilton, no doubt unwittingly, was using the same language used several years ago in a Register Star column to promote the now-discredited 2.00 grade average. You know the old line (no pun intended) about bait and hook. With this kind of bait, is it any wonder so many kids are left dangling from the hook of limited lifelong opportunities because they didn’t have to worry about boring old math and English stuff, thanks to Failure on Demand? Hilton tells us he’s been screaming that it’s about the kids. You would think he’d be screaming it’s about the kids’ education. Trowbridge eagerly tells us that it took less than 24 hours to assemble the coaches and inform them of the new policy. I submit it would have taken less than 24 seconds to clear the room had the new athletic directors proposed a policy which actually works.

And what exactly is the policy that would have coaches tripping over each other in their rush to the door? A no fail policy which, simply stated, requires athletes to be passing all their classes to be eligible for sports. Such a policy was in effect in 1983, and I’ll never forget when the first report cards of the year were handed out — the whoops and yelps and looks of astonishment on athletes’ faces upon seeing those report cards and realizing they had not only passed every subject, many made honor roll for the first time as well. A no fail policy has the advantage, too, of keeping students on track for graduation, since most dropouts result from falling so far behind in earned credits, there is no hope of graduating on time. Unlike Failure on Demand, when the athletic season is over but the semester isn’t, students can go back to shooting paper wads in class instead of working to pass for the semester, so they can have the prospect of one day shooting baskets in a championship game!

The coaches vehemently opposed the no fail policy and couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. Why? Because during its time, there was a handful of situations in which a team had to forfeit a game due to ineligibility, but it never happened twice in the same school, creating, if nothing else, an object lesson for athletes. The academic gains for athletes more than offset the occasional forfeits. Being under Friday night lights, however, is more important to some coaches, even if it means unplugging the lights on an educated future for their athletes. That is why it is so hypocritical to imply that those coaches have only the interest of their athletes at heart. Fielding a team at all cost takes precedence.

And what are we really talking about when using the word “athlete” in this context? We’re talking about black athletes, so let me tell you about a black athlete from Auburn High School who didn’t hear his name called out at a sports pep assembly, even in the face of a spontaneously-gathered student petition to have him recognized for the athletic goal he was pursuing. The coaches didn’t have time for that kid’s athletic dreams, but it didn’t deter him. As a result, he did hear his name called out. Not, of course, at one of those “Whoop ‘em up, rip ‘em up: We’re gonna smear ‘em” pep assemblies on which coaches thrive and which serve little purpose other than taking away from classroom academics. No. He heard his name called out in the rarified air of supreme athletic achievement as winner of an Olympic medal.

His is a prime example of why we shouldn’t trivialize black potential by insisting we have to make allowances for black athletes. The new Failure on Demand policy makes things convenient for coaches and serves no other purpose. The Register Star may think that by lowering standards, you in some screwy way inspire students and light a fire, but the only thing that gets lit with that kind of reasoning is a firestorm of functional illiteracy! The Board of Education may be pleased as punch with the way things are going, but far from signaling the dawn of a new day, the new Failure on Demand athletic eligibility policy simply guarantees that in District 205, the sun never sets on the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Tim Hughes is a former teacher in Rockford School District 205 who coached debate and taught English at Auburn High School for 20 years. At Auburn, he coached three debate teams to first-place national championships.

From the Aug. 31-Sept. 6, 2011, issue

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