High School Sports

Prep athletes get better grades, but how much is because of special treatment?

Studies have shown that students who participate in activities or athletics have better grades than those who don’t. But how much of that is because of their diligent work in the classroom and how much is because they receive special attention is an age-old question.
Studies have shown that students who participate in activities or athletics have better grades than those who don’t. But how much of that is because of their diligent work in the classroom and how much is because they receive special attention is an age-old question. Staff photographer

Rick Wells, the athletic director for the Puyallup School District, believes the era of teachers faking grades for apathetic football players is over.

Not with teacher evaluations tied to statewide test scores. Teachers have to ensure students toe the line in the classroom or risk their job, he said.

“I don’t think it’s about, ‘Let’s give this kid extra credit for emptying out my trash can so he can play in tonight’s football game,’” Wells said. “I mean, those days are over. I don’t really see that anymore.”

Studies have shown students who participate in activities or athletics have better grades than those who don’t But how much of that is because of their extra-diligent work in the classroom and how much is because they receive special attention compared to non-athletes is an age-old question in high school — and college — sports.

Students must have a minimum 2.0 grade-point average and can be failing only one class to participate in athletics. But many districts go by their own, more stringent standards.

At Lakes High School, for example, athletic director Scott Nordi said they are testing a new academic eligibility standard that allows a student to have a failing grade as long as they have a 2.5 GPA.

“What we saw is that kids were busting their butts in the classroom because they knew, ‘I’m not going to pass chemistry. Chemistry is tough.’ But under our old policy, that kid knew going into September that he was going to be on academic probation and not eligible,” Nordi said.

“We had a kid who was at 2.2. He worked his butt off in his other classes. He didn’t get to a 2.5, but he got to a 2.45. Which, that’s huge. That’s success. So we saw the academic piece because we gave them that window of hope.”

But administrators aren’t naive.

Bishop Ferijang, a football and baseball player at Foss High School, said he still sees athletes who sleep in class and show they don’t care for anything other than sports.

“That’s why I kind of like to get to know my teachers and show them that I’m a student first,” Ferijang said. “I try not to be just the athlete.”

Stadium volleyball player Julia Battishill said her teachers might give her special treatment if she were to tell them she got home from her volleyball match at midnight the previous night.

“But I really just want to get things done and get it done the right way,” Battishill said. “Maybe if I talk to them privately, but for the most part they would say, ‘Well, you chose to do sports. That’s great. But you’re also in school.’”

Foss athletic director Marc Powers said when he is not in his office, he is typically walking the hallways, asking athletes how their grades are doing and encouraging them in their classes.

“When I took the athletic director position ... ,” Powers said. “I didn’t think that was a part of it, but it ended up being something that I try to be really proactive about.”

Of the eight to 10 percent of Curtis High School students who don’t graduate, athletic director Terry Jenks, who is also the school’s graduation coordinator, said he sees an athlete on that list “maybe one of every three years.”

He said the school’s basketball coach, Tim Kelly, holds a study table in his classroom, or checks in with teachers every day.

“And, yeah, we will declare students academically ineligible when we have to,” Jenks said. “And you know, I sit across the table from parents a lot of times and their kid is a sophomore and he didn’t make it. And this fall he’ll have a 10-day window where he is not eligible, or the five-week rule.

“If we are talking about impacting the rest of that kid’s high school career — if that kid can miss games now and learn his lesson now as a sophomore, he’s going to get the message and he is not going to be in this position again.

“I’ve been at this position over 15 years and I’m confident that I have very few repeat offenders in academics because they figure it out.”

Research in Minnesota showed that student-athletes received a 2.84 GPA compared to 2.68 for non-athletes, according to non-profit organization Up2Us Sports, and a study in North Carolina found student-athletes had a 2.98 GPA compared to 2.17 for non-athletes.

The WIAA selects academic state champions for all classifications in sanctioned sports and activities after every season.

Of the 29 sports and activities in the 2014-15 school year, girls cross country had the highest collective GPA for the six academic state champions named (one in 4A, 3A, 2A, 1A, 2B and 1B) at 3.869.

The top seven collective GPAs for the academic state champions were all girls sports (cross country, tennis, track and field, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and golf). The top boys sport was tennis at 3.788.

Football was at the bottom of the list at 3.432, but it also had the second-most participants behind band, which was 20th at 3.626.

“I had a parent who was antagonistic toward the idea of athletics and that it was a waste of money. Their kid wasn’t an athlete,” Wells said. “They challenged that whole notion that kids who are involved in school stay in school and they do better in school. His comment was basically that it was a bunch of rhetoric. ‘You have to prove that to me.’

“Well, first of all, there is a GPA requirement. You have to have a 2.0 to even be on the team. And you have to maintain it to stay on the team. What other programs have that? Do you have to have a 2.0 to stay in math? No, you can flunk it and stay there every day of the school year.

“We make sure kids are toeing the mark and staying ahead and we check on them every few weeks to make sure they are.”


Part 1: Specialization, with a South Sound coaches roundtable.

Part 2: Recruiting, with a WIAA roundtable.

Part 3: Participation, with a South Sound athletic directors roundtable.

Part 4: Academics, with a Tacoma Captains Council student-athlete roundtable.


The WIAA names academic state champions for every sport and activity in every classification after every season. The collective average GPAs of each program in every sport and activity that named an academic state champion showed that girls cross country had the top overall average GPA and football was at the bottom. The top seven academic state champion GPAs were all girls sports in the 2014-15 school year.



Girls cross country


Girls tennis


Girls track and field


Girls basketball






Girls golf


Boys tennis




Boys cross country


Boys swimming




Girls swimming


Boys golf


Girls soccer








Boys basketball








Boys soccer


Boys track and field


Dance & Drill




Boys wrestling


Girls wrestling