WHEELING - The Ohio Valley remains a hotbed of high school sports with one of the largest athletic conferences in the nation, but many have questioned for years if too much emphasis is being placed on what happens on the field of play instead of what happens in the classroom.
According to several local athletic directors, those who excel in sports typically end up being the same students that excel in the classroom.
Wheeling Park High School Athletic Director Dwaine Rodgers said his school offers 19 sports for male and female students. An athlete-parent guidebook puts onto paper what is expected of Patriots student-athletes.
Those who excel in sports typically end up being those who excel in the classroom as well, local educators believe.
Rodgers said he reviews that book with as many of the teams participating in the schools 19 sports as possible. A parent's signature is needed assuring that they have reviewed the required guidelines for a student's athletic participation, and Rodgers said parents are encouraged to also review the handbook with their child.
Rodgers, who also serves as one of the school's assistant principals, is in his fifth year of running the Patriots' athletics department. The state of West Virginia sets the academic standard, ruling that all student-athletes must maintain a 2.0 grade point average to remain eligible for school sports.
"Wheeling Park has been very fortunate to have very successful athletic programs, as well as successful academic programs," Rodgers said. "We have great student-athletes, and they receive a lot of support from the community."
Student-athletes are not committed to team obligations only during the season, however, with the importance now placed on off-season conditioning and weight training, winter drills and summer camps. And with student-athletes participating in multiple school sports, the athletic calendar is year-round for many teenagers.
At St. Clairsville High School, about 350 of the 500 students there participated in one of the school's 11 sports last year, according to figures provided by Athletic Director Kelly Rine. And about 170 of those students took part in multiple sports.
With seven out of every 10 students participating in sports, Rine acknowledged that athletics are revered at St. Clairsville and a point of pride for the high school. In his seventh year as athletic director, Rine pointed out that students balancing sports and school learn valuable time management skills, and athletics can help produce well-rounded teens.
One of the ways Rine and school administrators evaluate the success of student-athletes is by the number of Red Devils that earn Ohio Valley Athletic Conference all-academic honors, which he said is annually among the most in the conference. At the least, students must pass five credit courses in the preceding grading period and maintain a 1.5 grade point average to be eligible for school sports.
At John Marshall High School, of the approximately 1,160 students there, 680 doubled as athletes, according to Athletic Director Charles Duckworth. About 240 were multiple sport athletes, something Duckworth said he encourages. The time constraints that are placed on a student-athlete compels teenagers to focus on academics when they are out of the gym or off the field, said Duckworth, who has overseen the athletic department for eight years.
Duckworth said he meets with parents of eighth-grade students at the end of each academic year and stresses the importance of extracurricular activities, and that includes non-athletics, he pointed out.
Away from academics, much of the current talk concerning student-athletes deals with the alleged August rape of a 16-year-old Weirton girl by two Steubenville juveniles, both of whom played on the football team. Some in that community and elsewhere have said that the juveniles and others present during the alleged rape received preferential treatment because of their athletic skills.
Longtime school administrator Terry Wallace, while not commenting directly on the Steubenville case, believes in general those in prep athletics are not benefiting from a so-called "free pass."
Wallace has worked in the education field for more than 40 years, and during that time has served as an administrator in several states. He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University.
Speaking in general terms and not specifically on the Steubenville case, Wallace talked about his experience with the treatment of student-athletes in schools. He said student-athletes are held to a higher standard than the average student, because much is expected from them on the playing field and within their community, as well as in the classroom.
"High performers, whether they're academic or athletic, tend to be held to a somewhat higher standard in the community, because we expect them to be very good at what they do across the board," he said. "We expect high-performing athletes to be high-performing people."
Because of that ideal standard, any student-athlete that stumbles off the field can quickly attract the public's attention, Wallace said.
"Athletes tend to be very visible and very vulnerable in the community," he noted. "If you're a high-performing athlete, and you engage in some untoward behavior, everybody's going to know about it. And people tend to put you under a microscope."
A few examples of notorious behavior among student-athletes can cause many to make unfair generalizations about the role of high school athletics, Wallace concluded. He said people tend to focus on the cases of prep athletes getting into trouble, rather than the positive values that sports has instilled in them.
"For every student-athlete you may be able to find who's had a childhood problem, I can show you a lot of ones who were saved - where coaches and school officials have reached over the cliff and pulled them back. For some of them, athletics has motivated them to do better," he said.
But teachers and coaches have only limited access to student-athletes in the classroom and on the field, Wallace said, and those lessons have a limited effect if they are not reinforced by parents in the home.
"Schools can't raise children. Schools don't raise children," he said. "Parents are supposed to raise children ... and that doesn't always happen in the most positive ways."