Jeff Harrington is an attorney and the boys tennis coach at Coronado High School. Staff photo by Willem Quigley.

Each year, certain graduating athletes at Coronado High are selected to receive Senior Awards.

However, recipients must timely submit an application in order to get their awards.

Failing to do so means the award is perfunctorily eliminated. Also, recipients are not advised of their awards in advance, so all seniors are expected to submit an application just in case.

This “application policy” has been in place at CHS for decades, so this letter is not meant specifically for the current coordinator but to all predecessors and successors as well (collectively, the “Coordinator”).

Time to shine a light on the practice

Undoubtedly, the Coordinator is well-intending and dedicates time to Senior Awards for little or no compensation. Nevertheless, it is time to shine a light on this practice of stripping athletes of their awards over some ill-conceived paperwork.

Besides being predatory, the application policy smacks of egocentrism and reflects an underlying assault on sports in public schools.

CHS’ talented seniors may look developed and self-confident, but they are still young.

Some, in particular athletes, may be more vulnerable than you think.

For purposes here, we can divide high school students into two categories: conforming and

Conforming students are “plugged in”

Conforming students are high academic achievers who are earnest and “plugged in” at school.

We need not worry about this group because they do timely submit their applications.

Now, is this group likely to comprise the school’s best athletes? Sometimes.

But, in many cases, they are not.

This letter is in defense of the non-conforming students – particularly, those who play sports (“Non-conforming Athletes”).

Non-conforming athletes miss deadlines

Non-conforming athletes are not necessarily bad students.

Often, they are just a little less fascinated by academia than their counterparts. They are,
however, prone to missing deadlines. You can even label them “irresponsible” if you wish.

These are the students we need to worry about because, unless they happen to be among the very few who get scholarships and become professional athletes, they are vulnerable.

For Non-conforming athletes, sports are of critical importance. That is how they derive self-worth and form their identity. Moreover, sports give these students a reason to continue their schooling.

Why take away their awards?

So, why take away their awards?

One explanation for the application policy is that it provides information about the recipient, so the presenter will have something to say when handing over the award. Now, would the athlete not prefer to get the award even if the presenter has nothing to say?

Would the coach not happily provide content if requested? And, if this were truly the rationale, then why not make the recipients aware beforehand and give them the option to provide information?

Would that not make more sense than asking the entire senior class to complete applications knowing only a few will be selected?

The only other defense raised is that, after all, it is a simple application and seniors are given ample opportunity to submit them.

Policy is punishment for non-conformers

So, now we are getting to it. The policy is really a punishment for the non-conforming.

Consider the scenario.

The senior athlete puts in a full season of hard work and dedication – in most cases, four full seasons. After careful deliberation, the coach determines the athlete is the most deserving of recognition.

Unfortunately, the selected athlete is non-conforming – perhaps unaccustomed to
receiving school accolades – and so disregards the application thinking there is little chance of receiving an award.

Does the Coordinator contact the athlete? No. Does the Coordinator contact the coach? No.
Instead, the Coordinator simply eliminates that particular award.

How about sending awards later?

How about sending the award after the fact? That way, although the youngster misses out on the excitement of being recognized at the ceremony, at least the award gets to the person who earned it. Again, the answer is “No.”

This not a hypothetical. It is a description fitting several senior athletes this year alone.

How many have been excluded over the decades? So, how could it be that our educators would implement and enforce such a draconian practice?

Rewarding conformity

The educational system rewards conformity.

The Coordinator probably had success in school and was, therefore, drawn to education as a profession. That is perfectly fine, but it can limit one’s perspective.

Probably, the Coordinator can neither understand nor identify with Non-conforming athletes.

So, the Coordinator cannot appreciate the role of sports in the lives of these young people.

It comes down to this.

The application policy is an imposition of the Coordinator’s own values and a punishment of those who are wired differently. Sadly, the practice extinguishes the one source of positive reinforcement Non-conforming athletes have in our educational system.

Assault on physical activities

In recent years, the assault on physical activities in school has become extreme.

Students can essentially “opt out” of PE altogether, and sports programs have almost no funding.

In this context, the application policy makes perfect sense.

What the policy really does is provide a mechanism for snatching away what little positivity might otherwise be associated with school sports.

It is a way of saying: We will tolerate sports programs, but we will not celebrate standout athletes unless they conform to our values.

I’m a former non-conformer

A former non-conforming student myself, I am grateful sports kept me engaged in school long enough to discover interests I did not even know I had.

Do a search online and you will get a long list of athletes who were not great students in high school but went on to contribute meaningfully to society.

It turns out there is more than one path to a productive and fulfilling life.

It may be hard to imagine Non-conforming athletes amounting to much, but we still need to refrain from actively oppressing them. They may not currently fit your paradigm, but please give them a chance to build some self-esteem, have a positive experience at school, and stay engaged long enough to find their way.

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Jeff Harrington is an attorney and the boys tennis coach at Coronado High School.