In Georgia, playing a high school sport is a privilege, not a right.
Students have to meet certain expectations to play high school sports. They must stay out of trouble. They must attend classes. They must be students as well as athletes, and they must earn at least a 70 percent grade in each class.
Concerns were raised last week by a few Gainesville residents regarding student-athletes at Gainesville High School. The school district responded to the concerns, saying the system abides by Georgia High School Association rules in how they are treated.
“We follow the GHSA rules on eligibility,” Gainesville athletic director Billy Kirk said. “We have never played a student-athlete that is academically ineligible.”
At the Gainesville City Schools board of education meeting Nov. 16, two residents expressed their concerns about the discipline and structure provided for student-athletes.
“We’re playing players that are failing multiple classes,” said Lee Wiley, a Gainesville High parent and alumnus. “This sends such a horrible message to all of our kids, to the kids we’re continuing to play even though they’re not passing, even though they’re misbehaving in school.”
Wiley called the district’s reported efforts to ensure the success of student-athletes in the classroom “totally inaccurate.”
Kirk denied the claim that the district plays ineligible students, citing GHSA rules.
Tasha Humphrey, Gainesville High alumna, former student-athlete and current professional basketball player, expressed her concerns as well.
“I know there are kids that are not going to classes, that are failing multiple classes like Mr. Wiley said. They’re not being held accountable,” she said.
Humphrey further suggested student-athletes are “exploited” and not prepared for life after high school.
She said making exceptions for student-athletes creates “a pipeline from high school to the judicial system.”
“Gainesville High stands for academic excellence,” Wiley said. “It stands for athletic excellence. It stands for pride and integrity, character and honesty. But we seem to be letting some of those characteristics kind of melt away.”
School board chairwoman Delores Diaz said the board cannot respond immediately to a concern brought up by a resident at a school board meeting.
“We as a board will have to discuss what you have to say,” she told guests at the meeting. “But we will see that you receive a written response.”
Kirk sent the written response on behalf of the district, addressing the question, “Why are students who are failing classes still participating in sports?”
In his response, he listed the GHSA Rule Book standards for academic eligibility.
Students gain eligibility through a certification process that begins with the school principal. Academic requirements demand student-athletes pass classes with a 70 percent or higher “the semester immediately preceding participation.”
In other words, academic eligibility does not demand benching students who are currently failing, only those who have already failed.
Those students who have failed a class in a spring semester can go to summer school to regain academic eligibility, according to the rule book.
Gainesville High School also has its own behavioral expectations for academic eligibility, outlined in the student handbook as a Student Athlete Code of Conduct.
Students who are given suspensions are ineligible to play during the suspension, but may return to the team when they return to class, at the coach and principal’s discretion.
Abuse of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs has specific consequences outlined in the handbook as well, including suspension from the team for a percentage of the season, depending on the number of “offenses.”
Some behavioral violations, such as severe hazing, can warrant suspension from athletic activities for the entire school year, but students may be eligible to return to the team the next year.
Wiley said he’s met to discuss these standards with Gainesville High Principal Tom Smith and Gainesville Middle School Principal Rose Prejean-Harris, who he said have been “great and receptive.”
He expressed his hope that rules would be more structured and that the schools would look more closely at how the policies are enforced.
“This is the reason we have professional football players we read about every day that are committing murder, that are beating their spouses,” he said. “Because when they were in high school, when they were in college, if they were a great athlete, the rules were set aside.”