This article, "Re-framing the Discourse on Readiness in Athletics," (co-authored with Maria Dehnert) was published in Teachers College Record in April, 2019. We examined the case of former University of Houston football player Ed Oliver.
Ed Oliver graduated from Westfield High School outside of Houston in the spring of 2015. He enrolled at the University of Houston and was heralded as the most promising football player to ever join the university’s team. Ed fulfilled this promise, winning multiple awards for his performance on the field. He decided to leave Houston before graduating in order to try playing in the National Football League (NFL). Ed is expected to be among the best players entering the professional ranks in 2019. Due to his size, strength, and physical abilities, Ed has been described as a physical “freak of nature.” He is ranked as one of the top ten prospects in the NFL draft that is to be held in April.
Ed’s case offers interesting insight into the public discourse on readiness around college sports. Ed, like the handful of other highly-ranked young football players in the U.S., has been closely analyzed by researchers and public pundits since he first demonstrated his skills in high school. The analysts use hard criteria like size, speed, and game statistics, but also subjective ones like body type, attitude, and “readiness” for the game. Ed is widely regarded as being ready for the NFL because he is strong, fast, and agile. He is also highly-ranked because he was exposed to top athletics coaches, competition, and facilities since he entered Westfield High School as a ninth grader.
However, the breadth of readiness of the student-athletes that Houston and other top-level universities recruit is not uniformly evident. Playing football in Texas, like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida—some of the biggest hotbeds in high school football—gives young athletes a leg up in preparing for college football. Such intensive football preparation, if not paired with other robust educational and social supports, may be less useful than many understand it to be. Only 1.6% of college players make it to the NFL. And those few who do make it to the league, are not financially set for life. Recent studies indicate that the average NFL career lasts less than three years and a majority of former NFL players face financial duressshorty after they are finished with football.
Across a range of non-football rankings, many of the very same places that score so highly on the field, do not stack up well against the competition. For example, among ESPN’s top 50 football prospectsin Ed’s high school graduating class of 2016, five attended IMG Academy, which has been broadly critiqued as being more of a “finishing school for football” than a true high school. Thirty-two other top prospects attended public schools—28 of which are located in the South. On a scale of 0 (lowest) to 100 (highest),the averageUS News College Readiness Score for these schools is a22. Further, in states with some of the lowest testing standards—where most students pass as proficient – the public schools that these top football recruits attended have an average of less than 50% math and reading proficiency.
Many of these coveted high school athletes are coming from broader academic systems that, in fact, appear to lag behind in academic readiness across a range of ages and spaces. For instance, not only do these states have the lowest ACT scoresamong all high school students, but in Texas, 82% of African American 4thgraders score below proficient on their state reading tests. And there are similar percentages of non-proficiency in the other popular recruiting spaces of Alabama (85%), Arkansas (85%), Florida (80%), Georgia (80%), Louisiana (89%), North Carolina (80%), and South Carolina (87%).
Although test scores, AP exams, and college readiness scales can give only partial insight into top football recruits’ contexts, other indicators reveal broader weaknesses in their communities’ education infrastructures. The football states have robust youth sports programs,but their child poverty rates are among the highest in the country and, in these states, far less than half of all four-year olds from poor families attend pre-school. Such conditions significantly detract from academic readiness and college success.
Many schools and communities in football hotbed regions struggle to promote college readiness in even remotely comparable ways as they promote readiness for sports. For instance, Ed Oliver’s high school sent 49 of its football players to college rosters during his time at Westfield. The Westfield coaches are known to be excellent – and four of them moved up to college and professional coaching positions in recent years. But Westfield has a 3.4 scoreon the 0-100 college readiness scale and, academically, is ranked 1482 (out of 1797 high schools) in Texas. Twenty-two percent of Westfield students tested proficient on the state English assessment and 27% tested proficient in Math. The school district has eagerly promoted Oliver’s football accomplishments and is the midst of building a new multimillion dollar football stadium. At the same time it has struggled to provide a safe, stable environmentfor its students. Troublingly, some of Ed’s friends in the Spring School District experienced profound systemic failure during the spring of their senior years when school counselors’ advising errors led to many students not accumulating enough credits to get their degrees.
Athletics can provide innumerable benefits to students, schools and communities. And while local leaders cannot be blamed for promoting their schools’ athletic programs and for anticipating students’ bright futures in college and professional sports, we must ask whether comparable support and expectations are found outside of football? Just as growing up in and around great systems of youth and high school football helps young football players get ready for sport, so too does exposure to high quality education environments—marked by thriving schools, high academic expectations, and healthy communities—foster academic readiness.
If our most talented young student-athletes are disadvantaged by poverty, unstable neighborhoods, inadequate public services, and struggling schools from the time they are born, are we to expect they will be college-ready as 18-year olds? They deserve better. The reality is that many student-athletes’ chances to succeed in the classroom and attain degrees are often undermined before they first set foot on their campuses. And while national leaders like the Big Ten’s Jim Delany have rightly stepped up to spur college-level reformon such matters, other important actors from students’ homes, communities, schools, and universities must also take action.
At the university level, education researchers can play a key role in reframing the “readiness discourse” around high school and college sports. To accompany the robust studiesbeing pursued on athletes’ health and on the economics of athletics, we identify three areas that should be examined:
1) The benefits of participation in sport.Research reveals that participation on teams is often linked with promising academic, physical, and emotional outcomes. At the same time, numerous problems have been documented at all levels of sport and recent studies indicate that even those who achieve at extremely high levels are commonly not ready for their post-athletics lives. As youth, high school, and college athletics expenditures continue rising, research is needed to inform leaders about which aspects of sport participation are actually most beneficial and what factors maximize athletics-related contributions to life readiness.
2) The features of exemplary school and community programs that offer access to both athletics and to education and wellness. The current public discourse examines high-performing sports programs, but not enough is known about the places that offer excellence across a range of academic, social, and athletic settings. Surveys and comprehensive case studies on the planning, development, and implementation of programs that merge athletics and academics in diverse settings are needed.
3) The impacts of the in-and-out of school youth sports landscape across different segments of society.A $15 billion industry has rapidly emerged in the US in recent years. Many parents spend more time and resources on their children’s athletic pursuits than academic ones with hopes that their children can compete for college athletic scholarships. Some communities have even decided to prioritize local bond initiatives for youth sports complexes over those directed at school improvements. This growth in youth sport investment raises questions about both what types of readinessare being emphasized through sport, but also for whomare opportunities being created?
Ed Oliver is one of the best young football players in the country and he appears to be ready for a lucrative professional career. But if sports are to be optimized as a positive experience for a wider swath of young students, researchers need to help inform and re-shape the public discourse on readiness in and around the field of play.