A study in Syracuse and a Ring in Cleveland: LeBron’s greatness stretches beyond basketball

The expectations bequeathed upon LeBron James sometimes overshadowed the magnitude of his success.

In 2002, the year that Kobe won his third consecutive NBA Championship with the Lakers, Sports Illustrated published an article comparing a 17-year-old LeBron to the likes of Magic Johnson. In 2003, when Carmelo Anthony won a NCAA championship, some wondered aloud if James – a senior in high school – could go on to be the greatest pro of all time. When he was drafted to Cleveland, in his home state, the city deemed him the prince that was promised to finally deliver a long-awaited championship.

A prophecy was placed on his back, one that he himself may have even accepted.

imgres-1When he began his professional career in Cleveland, he quite literally served as an economic engine for the post-industrial city, which harbored sports fans who had suffered decades of heartbreak. He was an import of high demand in a city that had grown weary of watching its jobs and companies drive off into the sunset. Therefore, before his great act of redemption on Sunday, his biggest flaw to most was that he’d once left Cleveland behind in 2010; he did so without any rings, to play in a more glamorous Miami, on a Heat team that had been put together with the idea of winning championships.

I worried that his legacy would be muddied by his earlier departure, so his July 11th, 2014, “I’m Coming Home” announcement was a breath of fresh air – and relief. It represented not only an expression of loyalty, but also a chance to secure his place in sports history. He did just that on Sunday night, when he and the Cavs completed the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, against a team that won more games this season than any other in NBA history. He brought Cleveland a championship.

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(Jason Miller/ Getty Images)

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that sports fandom is a fickle institution, one that sometimes focuses in on smaller aspects of a greater image. I watched LeBron in an interview earlier this month, when he said something that brought me back to a reality that had been blurred by expectations, expectations that are dwarfed by the true enormity of what LeBron had accomplished, long before last night:

“I’m a statistic that was supposed to go the other way, growing up in the inner city, having a single-parent household. It was just me and my mother. So everything I’ve done has been a success.”

As I thought about what he said, I couldn’t help but think back to my JV basketball team at Corcoran high school, in the city of Syracuse, where graduation rates hover just above 50 percent. Many of my teammates and classmates came from single parent households; some walked miles to school, eating dinner at corner stores on the way home.

I understood at a relatively young age that the socioeconomic conditions of many of my classmates seemed to profoundly correlate to their academic success. I always found it interesting that many people did not make the same assumption about athletic success in economically disadvantaged high schools. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that the same factors that create an extra burden on students in the classroom would carry over to the equally pressure-filled theater that is athletics?

Instead, people often assume the opposite – that city kids are somehow superior athletes when it comes to sports like basketball and football. It’s a reverse stereotype that has always bothered me. I can remember the father of a suburban friend that I played against making comments to me that assumed my team to be hyper-athletic, yet utterly undisciplined. It reminded me of an ugly characteristic that exists in this country, one in which too many people recognize physical ability, yet totally diminish mental capacity. It was as though these observers were unable to admit that these city kids had worked harder – and been better, based purely on hard work – than their own kids.

If we won, it was due to athleticism; if we lost – a lack of ‘composure.’ These stereotypes were rarely directed at me, the only white player on my team. Such stereotypes represent a mindset that is devoid of any understanding of the broad burden that poverty can place on children, as they grow up trying to maneuver their way through conditions that make it more difficult to achieve in virtually all aspects of life. It’s that mindset that forgets – or doesn’t care – that LeBron was born to a single, 16-year-old mother, and that his house was condemned by the city of Akron when he was just five.

jvteam
Corcoran high school JV basketball 2010

I had all of that in mind this spring when a professor offered to help me earn credits by allowing me to complete a semester-long independent study. I decided I’d look into whether the economic backgrounds of local high schools correlated not only with academic success, but also athletic success. I did so by examining each school’s graduation rates, athletic winning percentage, and the percentage of graduates that were economically disadvantaged.

All eight of the high schools that I examined were large public schools within Onondaga County, N.Y. There were a few factors that – in some ways – skew results, but I believe the sample size is big enough to accurately represent the results. For instance, the city schools in Syracuse have combined to make one team for sports like baseball and lacrosse, and therefore I decided that I could only study certain sports: Boys and girls basketball, boys and girls track, football, girls volleyball. Graduation rates were not raw, but instead based on the cohort of students that attended four years at each high school.

A better description of the procedure and variables can be found underneath this article in the study itself. For your sake, I’ll get straight to the results.

I was fairly certain that there would indeed be a correlation, but I didn’t expect to find one so profound. The most remarkable example can be found in this table, representing the results from the 2013-2014 academic year, in which the three variables are ranked by school, with 1 representing the highest and 8 being the lowest.

2013-2014:

School Graduation Rate Athletic Winning Percentage  Graduates that are economically disadvantaged
Fayetteville-Manlius 1 1 8
Baldwinsville 2 2 7
Cicero-North Syracuse 3 3 6
Liverpool 4 4 5
Corcoran 5 5 4
Nottingham 6 6 3
Henninger 7 7 2
Fowler 8 8 1

Fayetteville- Manlius (FM) had the highest graduation rates (98.60%), as well as the highest athletic winning percentage (69.33%) and the lowest percentage of graduates that came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (9.93%).

This didn’t surprise me – it’s one of the wealthiest districts in the area and therefore receives a great deal of funding from its more affluent residents who pay higher property taxes than those in the city, thus allowing for higher per-student spending in regard to both athletics and academics. Furthermore, there is far less poverty in the district, creating less distractions for students and student-athletes. What I did not expect was for the results to go in exact order, across the board.

The 2014-2015 results weren’t as eye-catching, but they painted a very similar picture, with graduation rates being oppositely correlated with the percentage of graduates that were economically disadvantaged, meaning the schools with the lowest levels of economically disadvantaged students had the highest graduation rates. The city schools faired the lowest in athletic winning percentage and academic success, with the highest rates of economically disadvantaged graduates.

2014-2015

School Graduation Rate Athletic Winning Percentage Graduates that are economically disadvantaged
Fayetteville-Manlius 1 4 8
Baldwinsville 2 1 7
Cicero-North Syracuse 3 2 6
Liverpool 4 3 5
Corcoran 6 6 4
Nottingham 5 5 3
Henninger 7 7 2
Fowler 8 8 1

 Right around the time I was finishing this study, I ran into one of my former teammates, who’d just been released from serving a 2-year sentence in state prison. In high school, he was a good player and one that was easy to coach. His grades were decent.

At some point after high school, he’d given in to the conditions around him. Even then, his crime was not violent and when I saw him he seemed just as intent and high-spirited as before. He acted almost embarrassed when he told me about his new job, which didn’t pay much.

What he doesn’t know is that – as far as I’m concerned – his outcome is a great one if he simply hangs in there, stays happy (and out of trouble) and provides a situation for his kids that is better than the one he had to start with. In the end, that’s all any of us really want, isn’t it? Yet, that may not be all that easy, as what the study reinforces for me is this: Young men and women who are raised in economically disadvantaged backgrounds have to work even harder to achieve in almost every area life.

When you consider what it truly takes for one to lift one’s self out of poverty, it contradicts the notion that someone such as LeBron James can succeed simply because of sheer athleticism; his achievement should be judged with more than athletics in mind. He is great because he rose above the reality of smothering socioeconomic conditions that most of us can’t imagine. He is great because he serves as a role model for any young person, anywhere, who wishes to work at a craft – and succeed in it – regardless of background. He was great, long before last night, when he and his team won Cleveland a championship.

As Business Insider’s Tony Manfred put it, “Considering the dire circumstances into which he was born, his success story should be an inspiration to every single American.”

With that in mind, remembering and honoring my friends in school, I could not agree more with LeBron James:

“I’m a statistic that was supposed to go the other way, growing up in the inner city, having a single-parent household. It was just me and my mother. So everything I’ve done has been a success.”

 

Study: More than Academics 

Liam Kirst – Spring 2016

Topic: A study in economic, athletic and scholastic results

Thesis: The economic background of a high school is likely to correlate with both athletic and scholastic success.

School 2014 Graduation Rate 2014 % of Graduates that are economically disadvantaged 2015 Graduation Rate 2015 % of Graduates that are economically disadvantaged 2013-14 Athletic Winning Percentage – Includes: Boys and girls track, girls and boys basketball, football and girls volleyball. 2014-15 Athletic Winning Percentage-Includes: Boys and girls track, girls and boys basketball, football and girls volleyball
Baldwinsville 88.77% 13.40% 90.91% 12.90% 68.91% 67.53%
Cicero- North Syracuse 88.68% 23.13% 89.61% 24.20% 61.72% 62.33%
Corcoran 62.34% 57.29% 61.00% 60.10% 43.05% 45.45%
Fayetteville- Manlius 98.60% 9.93% 96.75% 10.40% 69.33% 51.31%
Fowler 30.32% 74.47% 34.13% 77.00% 15.79% 9.09%
Henninger 49.46% 64.63% 60.00% 64.84% 33.80% 46.25%
Liverpool 87.20% 24.04% 84.76% 24.24% 60.53% 58.75%
Nottingham 59.62% 63.44% 62.27% 62.94% 39.70% 32.89%

 

 

 

Research:

All nine of the high schools examined are highly populated public schools within Onondaga County, New York. Graduation rates were retrieved from each school’s “report card” listed on the Public Data Site of the New York State Education Department (NYSED). It is important to note that the graduation rates represent the cohort of students that attended each respective high school for all four years. Therefore, it is possible that the raw yearly graduation rates are higher or lower than said rates, dependent upon the success of transfers and accelerated students.

The economic background of each school’s population is represented by the percentage of graduates that are economically disadvantaged. NYSED defines economically disadvantaged students as:

“those who participate in, or whose family participates in, economic assistance programs, such as the free or reduced-price lunch programs, Social Security Insurance (SSI), Food Stamps, Foster Care, Refugee Assistance (cash or medical assistance), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), Safety Net Assistance (SNA), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), or Family Assistance: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).” (NYSED Glossary of Terms).

All athletic results were retrieved from the “High School Sports” section of Syracuse.com, the online site for the Syracuse Post-Standard. For 5 years, I worked as a clerk for the sports department at Syracuse.com, retrieving these very high school results from coaches and typing them into the system for publishing in the paper and on Syracuse.com.

Recent budget restraints caused the four city schools to merge their baseball, lacrosse and soccer programs. These sports were therefore left out. The sports that are used in the study were chosen because each school has its own team. 3 boys teams and 3 girls teams are represented in the “athletic winning percentage” variable: Boys and girls basketball, boys and girls track, football and girls volleyball. I personally felt that these sports would provide a large enough sample size to examine any correlation.

 Results:

2013-2014

Fayetteville- Manlius had the highest graduation rates (98.60%), as well as the highest athletic winning percentage (69.33%) and the lowest percentage of graduates that came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (9.93%). Baldwinsville had both the second highest graduation rate (88.77%) and winning percentage (68.91%), with the second lowest percentage of graduates who came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The data from Fayetteville-Manlius and Baldwinsville seemed to affirm my thesis that a high school’s economic background correlates with both athletic and scholastic results, so I decided to make a chart that ranked the schools, with 1 being the highest percentage for each variable, and 8 being the lowest. Despite my thesis, the results blew me away, as the correlation could not be represented any stronger in the table.

 

School Graduation Rate Athletic Winning Percentage % of Graduates that are economically disadvantaged
Fayetteville-Manlius 1 1 8
Baldwinsville 2 2 7
Cicero-North Syracuse 3 3 6
Liverpool 4 4 5
Corcoran 5 5 4
Nottingham 6 6 3
Henninger 7 7 2
Fowler 8 8 1

 

As shown above, the schools with the lowest percentage of graduates that come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds did the best in both graduation rates and athletic winning percentage, whereas schools with higher percentages of economically disadvantaged graduates did worse scholastically and academically. What was so amazing, though, is that the results go in exact order.

Now, it is important to remember that the athletic winning percentage doesn’t take into account certain sports, due to the fact that not all of the listed schools have their own team. Furthermore, the graduation rates are not exact, but instead only measure the “cohort” of students that attended all four years at the given high school. Still, the results clearly display a correlation between the studied variables.

The results can also be examined in a geographical way. In 2014, the Syracuse City School District schools (Corcoran, Fowler, Henninger, Nottingham) were the only schools with graduation rates below 65%; Corcoran had a 62.34% graduation rate, which is by far the highest of the city schools. The city schools were the only schools in the study with over 50% of graduates coming from backgrounds of economic disadvantage. Furthermore, all four schools averaged below 50% in athletic winning percentage, whereas the four suburban schools averaged a winning percentage of 65.52%.

2014-2015

School Graduation Rate Athletic Winning Percentage % of Graduates that are economically disadvantaged
Fayetteville-Manlius 1 4 8
Baldwinsville 2 1 7
Cicero-North Syracuse 3 2 6
Liverpool 4 3 5
Corcoran 6 6 4
Nottingham 5 5 3
Henninger 7 7 2
Fowler 8 8 1

 

The 2014-2015 data displays – in exact order – that the schools with the highest graduation rates, also had the lowest percentage of graduates that were economically disadvantaged. The schools with the lowest rates of graduation had the highest percentage of graduates that were economically disadvantaged. Therefore, a clear correlation appears to exist between the economic background of students in a school and graduation rates.

In comparison to the 2013-2014 data, athletic winning percentages were not quite as easy to predict. Fayetteville-Manlius had the highest graduation rate, but the fourth highest winning percentage. Still, all four of the city schools were at the bottom for both graduation rates and athletic winning percentages, yet harbored the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged graduates.

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