Thursday, December 20, 2012

The high school’s virtual, it’s just the team that’s real

Anyone who watches any television and/or follows any professional football, knows that it pays to be an MVP quarterback. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning seem to be leading the endorsement pack, with Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers nipping closely at their heels. I’m sure that Our Tom (Brady), with both the looks and the sports cred, would be all over the TV ad map if he hadn’t decided to focus on GQ-style print, where he’s having a nice and no doubt lucrative bromance with UGGs and Movado watches.

The quarterbacks get the glory, the girls, the greenbacks, alright. (They also get more than their share of the responsibility, the pressure, and the blame.)

So if you’ve got a son who seems to have what it takes to become a professional quarterback, an who wants to become one, you’d do everything you could to make sure it happens for him, right?

David Sills IV is doing just that for David Sills V, stretching the definition of “everything” beyond recognition. For starters, he paid a lot of money (which, as a real estate and construction “magnate”, he can well afford) to have his kid – then aged 10 - work with “quarterback guru” Steve Clarkson out in California, which, as anyone with the least sense of geography knows is just a hop, skip, and a pump fake from Delaware, where the Sills live.

David Sills V is apparently a bona fide phenom, so much so that he was offered a full ride by USC. When he was in seventh grade.

Okay. Sending your kid across continent to commune with a quarterback guru may do a bit of everything-stretching, but it’s not over the top extreme.

I would, however, put in that category: building a football stadium and training facility at the kid’s private high school; subsidizing the coaching staff; and offering financial aid to the largely African-American kids who would make up a worthy supporting cast for the athletic ambitions of Sills IV and (presumably) Sills V.

Alas, Red Lion Christian Academy decided that there were more important things in life than operating as a football powerhouse, a junior version of the football factories that many big time college programs are, and they pulled back.

In need of a showcase to showcase Sills V’s prowess, Sills IV was seemingly left with no other option but to establish a new school. Eastern Christian Academy is not only an online school, it’s a school that’s purpose-built to be a football team:

Eastern Christian was established six months ago [this is as of August 2012], and with less than three weeks until the start of the academic school year, 54 students are enrolled in grades six through 12. Forty-six are boys, and 46 are on the football team. The staff includes four teachers, a nurse, a minister and seven football coaches. The running backs and defensive backs coach is the director of operations, the de facto principal. (Source: Sports Illustrated.)

Were the eight girls recruited to be the cheerleading squad?

Sills V claims that the school is all about creating opportunities for poor kids to get into colleges:

“…that’s really what we care about…getting these kids into college, because a lot of these kids wouldn’t have the opportunity to go to college if it wasn’t for football, and we all know that college education is huge.” (Source: The New Yorker, October 15, 2012).

Sigh…on a couple of accounts.

First off, I am of the opinion that the meme that sports offers the only way to a college education for poor kids is a terrible, and terribly destructive, one.

Certainly, if kids are told day in, day out, that the excelling at sports is the only path they have to an “education” and to making something of themselves, and that the bling and the high life that come to those who make it big in the NFL (or the NBA) is desirable and their only way out, they will start to believe it.

Yet we all at least have a gut sense of the statistics: few college athletes make the pros, and at those colleges and universities that serve as the minor leagues for professional football and basketball, many athletes don’t get a degree at all, or get a worthless basket weave degree.

The young athletes who make it into the highest level college programs have no doubt worked very hard to develop their athletic skills. How much better off would they be if they had gotten the message that hard academic work is a better-bet path to a college education and a decent life?

Then there’s the virtual school thing.

Online learning is often a good thing, offering students the opportunity to augment their classroom school work with courses that their schools can’t offer. It’s certainly an alternative worth exploring for students who don’t do well in the traditional classroom. And there’s definitely going to be more of it before there’s less, that’s for sure.

But something tells me that, if we let it, online learning will become a prime educational outlet for poorer communities, while those in more affluent places will get to go the blended route: some online combined with traditional teachers, and food fights, and flirting in the halls, and slammed lockers, and decorating the halls for the Homecoming Hop (or grind, or whatever it’s called these days). In person school will be a luxury good afforded to and by some, not others.

Kids at Eastern Christian, by the way, don’t get a free ride:

Football programs are expensive, and Eastern Christian is not giving scholarships. Parents can help cover tuition by getting sponsors to buy $1,200 advertisements in the stadium and on Eastern Christian's web page, and Sills says he has partnered with a bank to provide families with 15-year loans.(Sports Illustrated.)

Oh, a 15 year loan to send your kid to a virtual high school so that he may or may not get into a football factory, where he may or may not get a (probably bogus) degree. That sounds like a just dandy idea. There’ll no doubt be one or two who makes the pros, and one or two who really takes advantage of the athletic “scholarship” to actually become a student with a worthwhile degree. But for most, it will likely be field of pipedreams.

[Sills IV] expects to hold a prom in the spring. He looks across the prospective 90-acre campus and imagines a football stadium, baseball diamond and softball field. "We'll never put athletics before academics," he promises, "but we'll probably come closer than most." (Sports Illustrated.)

I have no doubt about that final statement.

Check back in a few years and see whether Eastern Christian’s still up and running once Sills V is off to USC, and Sills IV no longer needs a team for his son to play with.

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