Electrifying action. Heartstopping tension. Roaring fans. Sports are all about the heat of the game. No matter the sport, every athlete loves the rush of adrenaline from scoring the winning goal, crossing the finish line first, or winning the game they need to go to state. On the field, everyone’s looking for the feeling of excitement that comes with playing sports. But the sports teams at Franklin vary wildly in the classroom.
Franklin’s cross country teams have off-the-charts grades. “Almost everyone [on the varsity team] had a 4.0 GPA, which is a lot higher than the school average,” says Kate Patterson (10), who is on the girls cross country team. The girls and boys teams both clock in at a 3.94, the highest of any Franklin sports team. For reference, 3.94 is the exact average GPA of students admitted to Harvard University. Even with such high grades, five other cross country teams from PPS managed to score better.
On the other hand, the Franklin boys football and basketball teams have such poor grades that they aren’t tracked by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA). OSAA only publishes grades for teams scoring an average of 3.0 or above, which both the football and basketball teams fail to do. At most schools, football and basketball perform poorly relative to other sports.
So what leads to the extreme grade disparities between teams?
Well, the sports themselves aren’t causing these differences. “It’s not that people who join cross country automatically have better grades,” says Patterson. And while the cross country coaches may encourage doing well in school, Patterson doesn’t think their influence is what keeps the team’s GPA so high. Coaches on lower-performing teams also want students to do well in school. Tucker Pellicci (11), a member of the boys basketball team, says that his coaches also prioritize academics. However, this encouragement doesn’t stop the team from having a lower GPA.
Another factor that is not responsible for the disparities is time spent practicing. Members of both girls cross country and boys tennis spend around ten hours a week at practice. Despite this, the boys tennis team has a 3.29 GPA, much lower than cross country. In fact, Patterson says the cross country team practices more than the track team. Recruitment is also not the cause because unlike private schools, Franklin can’t recruit players. Private schools generally have much higher grades—the girls cross country team at St Mary’s has a 3.98 GPA. “We want everyone … not just super smart people,” says Patterson.
So the cause couldn’t be the disparate demands of different sports, the coaches, time at practice, or recruiting academically stellar players. And while that list doesn’t present a clear answer, it may be the closest you can get. Of course, everyone has theories.
Patterson believes the high grades in cross country result from small teams, a “team culture of studiousness,” and individual students’ motivation. She says small teams are important because runners “really have to depend on each other,” which makes the team community stronger. It’s true that some larger teams perform worse in school. But Patterson’s theory doesn’t explain why track, which often has hundreds of runners, performs better than basketball, a team of less than a dozen.
The differences could also result from how much value teams place on grades. Alden Roy (10) of the boys tennis team says that the team doesn’t have a focus on academics. Pellicci also thinks players on his team could focus more on grades, saying “some [care] more than others.” Both Roy’s and Pellicci’s teams score much lower than cross country, a team which Patterson says emphasizes grades.
Class may also come into the story, as it usually does. Patterson says cross country could be a “natural path” for white and wealthier students. Data backs up her claims; a study from the National Institute of Health shows that black and Latino students are more likely to play football and basketball—Franklin’s lowest scoring sports—and low-income high school athletes play basketball more than any other sport. The same study finds that white and affluent students are more likely to be on cross country or track teams. Because opportunity and support vary between socioeconomic statuses, grades are tangled in wealth, class and race. Due to these systematic tendencies, whiter and richer sports—like cross country—could have a leg up in academics. [
No one can be certain why sports have such huge differences in GPAs. What is certain is that athletics at Franklin highlight grades in a way no other extracurriculars can. They show huge disparities between how teams perform in school. But in other ways, they make everyone equal. All players are looking for a rush, a thrill, from their sport, and every athlete works hard to play well. Students on the basketball team work hard, and students on the cross country team work hard. Both put in many hours a week, and both are dedicated to their sport. So then what causes the differences in grades? And how can Franklin change to support lower achieving teams? The first step is recognizing that some teams struggle to keep passing grades, while others are making their way to Harvard.