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Growing up in kids' country: Athletics versus academics

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow
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Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. Contact Dolly at ritewood@aol.com.

Tate University — A large football stadium, with a college attached.

— 1925 movie "The Freshman" 

The late Meg Greenfield wrote for Newsweek, and her column "Growing Up in Kids' Country" highlighted our nation's fixation on sports. She made a valid argument. Each year our president calls the winning coach of the Super Bowl. Local television news devotes an entire segment to sports. During each weekend, daytime programs on main TV channels are devoted almost exclusively to sports. Every season offers sports of one kind or another. We learn details about all the dazzling players, and we are duly dazzled. Outstanding players in high school or college become locally famous, and those in professional sports become nationally renowned — and wealthy. Someone said, "But, Dolly, sports is a business." That's true, but our taxes often fund school sports more generously than they fund academics.

Part owner of The Pilot, Frank Daniels III, wrote the following: "The [article] that caught my attention was the analysis USA Today published on publicly funded Division I (Football Bowl Series) college athletics. It showed schools are spending as much as six times more money on an athlete than they spend to educate non-athlete students; and between 2005 and 2010, the period of the study, spending on athletics increased twice as fast as spending on academics."

Salaries of coaches, contrasted with salaries of professors, are more revealing. The most highly paid football coach makes more $5.5 million a year. The average salary of full-time professors at University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is $232,396, the highest average in the country. More than 80 percent of the professors are researchers in the cancer center. Do these contrasting numbers indicate we place more priority on football games than on cancer research? 

School sports are important, but they're not nearly as important as academics. With respect to recognizing winners in school, brawn has won the battle over brains, but it is our scholars who have made awe-inspiring academic touchdowns. They have knocked the ball out of the study hall ballpark. They have sacrificed fun to work out in the mental-muscle weight room. They deserve at least the same level of recognition winning sports players receive. Because I believe this, I have a story for you.

Despite the cold night, the bleachers were packed. Commencement was a once-in-a-lifetime event for the 2013 graduates of Ripley High School. After the valedictorian spoke, I heard several say he had made the best speech they had ever heard. 

Here's an excerpt from his speech: "In 2009, Matt, my brother, stood right here and gave the closing speech to his graduating class. He said the four years of high school were the fastest years of his life.  Pride dictates that I must not acknowledge the fact he was right … (but he was). …   Tonight, May 24, 2013, our season at Ripley High School officially ends. Tomorrow we turn the page … How many towns do you know where the mayor (Carolyn Rader) stands on the street corner at 7 a.m., waving the high school flag as she gets everybody riled up for that night's game? … These are things I will always remember and always cherish … 

"At this time I would like to ask six of my classmates to join me on stage. Please bear with me while they make their way up here. (At this point, six students quietly rose and walked onto the stage. Three stood on one side of the speaker and three on the other.) 

"I come from a background of God, family and country. My father and grandfather were both enlisted Marines, and I have a special place in my heart for those in the military. I can think of nothing more noble and honorable than defending our country and freedom. I wish to thank Michael Hellems, Chad Longanacre, Zack Haga, Brandon Walters, Martin Kulh and Tyler Pittenger for their decision to join the military. I am honored to call these men my friends."

 Each of the six young men received applause after Andrew "Andy" Mellert, the valedictorian, announced his name. Andy learned early to combine physical fitness with mental alertness, knowing one would enhance the other. Although Andy could bench press 300 pounds, earning him the rare title "Iron Viking," his first priority was consistently academics. I know he agrees that brainpower, not brawn, will be our nation's most important asset in this age of technology when even a frail person could push a few buttons and destroy the entire world. Perhaps, then, it's time for us to move beyond "kids' country" and place priority on scholars while still enjoying sports.