Wed, Aug

Who’s Looking after the Student Athlete?

-Every year, we hear the same thing—another youthful athlete (especially during football season) has collapsed on the field, sometimes dying right there in front of the team or later in a hospital in front of the family.  Evan Raines, only 16, died in August at the end of just such a football practice.  They say his death might have been a result of cardiac arrest.   

Dodi Soza, attending a high school in Downey, collapsed during a junior varsity game a week ago.  He was rushed to the hospital where it was hoped he would survive, but he did not--he passed away four days later (our thoughts and prayers are with him and the family).  

These are just two of the many victims of what, perhaps, is egregiously inadequate fitness pre-screening for team eligibility.  

Athletes at the college (and sometimes at private high school level) are treated like low-paid, entry-level employees except they don’t get paid in dollars and cents.  Coaches often take in millions of dollars in salaries through multi-year contracts while students get a “full ride” (but not always) which covers tuition, books, lodging, and food (but never enough).  

With their heavy class load, homework, and practice schedules, there is literally no time or opportunity for getting a part-time job to cover basic expenses (beyond what the school offers), such as toiletries, sheets and towels, laundry money, clothing, and some extra-curricular activities like a movie or a date night.  

Students who truly need additional financial assistance can be the victims of extreme punitive measures if an outsider, like a booster, wants to help. 

They are under tremendous stress to perform.  Many, unfortunately and misguidedly, turn to drugs to assuage tension and even depression.  Some turn to robberies to get the things they need but can otherwise not afford.  It’s all so humiliating! 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am in no way condoning such behavior, but I do understand its roots.  Many young people, from early childhood, have seen sports as the only way to extricate themselves from desperate poverty and/or abuse.  They were often latch-key kids who came from dysfunctional families and went unsupervised. They often saw ill-behavior as an acceptable way to ingratiate themselves into a “family” in the hood—so they could feel a part of something larger than themselves. 

If early on, these youngsters exhibit obvious athletic talent, teachers and coaches frequently enable their bad habits (in academics and discipline) by giving them passing grades so they can stay on the team (even when the grades are not deserved). 

I remember when I was teaching at a downtown high school, a very prominent football player was in my class.  He had earned a full athletic scholarship to UCLA for the following year!  However, he was getting Ds and Fs in all his coursework, including mine.  The coach coerced teachers into raising grades (which most of them did).  Because I would not comply, the young man was removed unceremoniously from my class and placed elsewhere where he could get an inflated grade. 

He just did not have the foundation that he needed but went on to UCLA, nevertheless, where he found, almost immediately, that he could not play the entire season (despite his needed skills) because he could not pass his classes.  The school even gave him a chance the following summer to remove his probationary status by passing summer school classes.  How many people get second chances?  And what did he do with his?  He dropped out of school altogether.  I later had his cousin in one of my classes.  He told me that the latest he had heard, this “player” (with all its connotations) was standing aimlessly on street corners, holding up light posts. 

Yes, he was enabled—to fail

There are countless other examples of neglect and indifference toward our student athletes.  One high school recruited our older son, even though he did not live in the area.  The coach said, You must know someone who can lend you a utility bill (I will not share the racial overtones that went with his appeal).  Gee, he went on, if he plays for us, I can guarantee a full ride to a major school like USC.  We didn’t buy it.  Our son played football successfully at our neighborhood high school and went on to college and now is an executive at a nationally renowned company--thank you very much. 

Our younger son, at the tender age of  9 or 10, was playing Pop Warner Football—only to be told by one of the coaches that he should bulk up for the following season (implying he should consider steroid use, of course).  My husband and I were livid.  Here was a youngster who was naturally muscular (you should see his father) and had no need to get bigger (but even if he did, are you kidding me?!).  Did anybody care what effect such drugs have on these mere children? 

Another relative was prone to nose bleeds.  What did his sensitive coach have to say?  “Suck it up.  Stick a tampon up your nose and get the ---- out there and play. 

There seems to be a certain level of sadistic abuse inflicted on players by some coaches as administrators look the other way (at least until something dreadful transpires).  Many athletic programs make a player run the gauntlet between two rows of fellow players who beat the teammate as he runs the line.  Why?  He needed to be taught a lesson--maybe because he didn’t execute a play well enough or he took a water break because he was getting dizzy.  What is all this about, anyway?  WINNING!  (Did I get it right, Charlie Sheen?) 

Sports has increasingly become more of a business than a form of exercise, cooperative learning, or entertainment.  Coaches want to tout how great they are by racking up wins and championships.  Public schools want the recognition that comes with the trophies.  Colleges want the money.  Student athletes, particularly for basketball and football, bring in huge sums from fan attendance, sponsorships, ads, and television coverage, money that pays for the other, lesser-attended sports like baseball, soccer, archery, and golf.  It is almost as if these players were chattel, making the big bucks for “corporate” bosses. 

Most young athletes mistakenly believe they are going to make it to the pro’s.  Of course, this is not close to the truth.  I would always tell my students, the best athlete from every high school will not make a college team; the best athlete from every college will not make the pro’s.  And even if the athlete gets drafted (I can think of a Heisman Trophy winner or two), too often they get cut from the team because their skills are just not up to the professional level. 

I know of a pro baseball player whose career was cut short and wound up being a school janitor (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say)—but that was not his dream.  Sadly, sports did not work out for him in the way he had planned, and his education did not serve him well either because he neglected to apply himself at school when he had the chance. 

Moral:  Take care of business now, kids.  Reap the benefits later. 

And, what of all the concussions we hear about?  Boys and young men (in particular) are frequently the ones who play the rough-and-tumble sports from pee-wee to pros.  The NFL is tightening up the rules to protect their athletes, and as recently as 2012, public schools in California (once again the national leader) require immediate attention be paid to those players who, during a game or practice, have received some form of head injury.  

Now Governor Brown has gone one step further: Earlier this month, he signed SB 588 (introduced by Assemblymember Steve Fox)--legislation which will extend the law to include private and charter schools, mandating that student athletes be removed from games or practices when head injury is even suspected.   Good for you, Mr. Brown! 

All sanctioned teams, whether representing a school or a part of extra-curricular activities, require athletes to get a certification from a doctor, attesting to the good health of the player.  For most doctors, it seems, the process is perfunctory, not taken too seriously.  

There seems to be a lack of recognition by the many who are involved in sports, who may be the decision-makers, that thorough testing is a necessity—not an option, the absence thereof being one of the reasons we have so many young people collapsing to their deaths every year, often during lengthy and sweltering practices.   

What we need … what we must demand … are real (not cursory, not superficial) medical examinations performed on every prospective athlete.  A treadmill/stress EKG could potentially save many lives.  Blood-test screenings would help in a similar way.  

And, oh, by the way, we now have the Patient Protection and Affordable Healthcare Program to cover the expenses!


(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Coalition. She also writes for CityWatch.)







Vol 11 Issue 83

Pub: Oct 15, 2013