By Eric Levin
November 18, 1985 12:00 PM

Until a few weeks ago anybody who wanted to find someone in Prosper, Texas on a Friday night automatically knew where to look. If the Prosper High School football team was at home, most of the town’s 675 residents would be down at Eagle Field, hoping for a small miracle. It didn’t matter that the Eagles had lost all 10 games last season, or that, in this season’s opener under new coach Steve Lane, they found themselves trailing 61-0 at the half. Eagle Field was the place to be. Well, no more. Some of the Eagles have been hanging out Friday nights at the Wilson Creek Bridge, east of town. At Eagle Field there’s nobody—nada.

The scourge of Prosper and the bane of the Eagles is House Bill 72, a new state law requiring, among other things, that junior and senior high school students pass all their courses in each six-week grading period or forgo extracurricular activities for the next six weeks. Known as “no-pass, no-play,” the controversial rule took effect last spring, but not until the end of the first marking period last month did it collide head-on with football, the fall god of millions of Texans.

Immediately, 15 percent of the 39,000 varsity football players across the state—and 40 percent of all junior varsity and freshman players—were unceremoniously sent to the sidelines. Eisenhower High in Aldine, near Houston, lost 90 of 190 players. King High in Corpus Christi lost 13 of 22 starters. Two small high schools—Marathon in southwest Texas and Prosper, north of Dallas—had to cancel the remainder of the season. Prosper High, with a student body of 87, lost five players, leaving just 12 eligible to suit up.

“It’s been quite a shock to the community and will cause us some problems for awhile,” admits Prosper school board president Jerry Standerfer. “But for every one kid it hurts, it will help 10. I’m now hearing kids say they’ve really decided to buckle down and study—and that’s a good sign. I think it’s time the image of sports is changed. With this rule there won’t be any reason for the ‘dumb jock’ label any longer.”

One problem is that jocks, dumb or otherwise, aren’t the only ones affected by House Bill 72. In Prosper the cheerleaders and the drill squad have had to write off their seasons too, even though none of them failed any courses. “All the cheerleaders went to cheerleader camp this summer and spent a lot of money to learn new routines and get uniforms,” says their captain, Vivian Gonzalez. “Now there’s nothing to do.”

Nor is football the linchpin of everyone’s problems. Lori Patterson, a 15-year-old sophomore at Westfield High School in Houston, is an avid clarinet player who hopes to make music her career. She maintains a 3.0 grade-point average, but when she realized that her problems with geometry could jeopardize her seat in the elite symphonic band, the pressure began to upset her. “She was very agitated, sleepless, worried,” says her father, Ken. He finally took his daughter to see a physician, who wrote a note recommending that Lori be allowed to continue in band despite her failing grade in geometry. Though school officials made an exception for her, Patterson has filed suit to have the law overturned.

But in Texas, inevitably, the discussion always comes back to King Football. Last month, a Midland TV station preempted a National League pennant play-off game on NBC to televise a showdown between two high school powers, Odessa Permian and Midland Lee. “Anyplace else we would question the decision,” says the NBC affiliate spokesman, “but not in Texas.” To challenge an institution so sacrosanct takes an equally unimpeachable Texan, and no one fills that bill better than billionaire H. Ross Perot, 55. The son of a Texarkana cotton broker and part-time horse trader, Perot, an Eagle Scout but never an athlete, was a mediocre student himself until the 11th grade, when he saw the light and began earning A’s. He went on to become a whiz-kid salesman for IBM, then left the company at the age of 32 to found Electronic Data Systems Corp., which he sold to General Motors last year for $2.5 billion.

In 1981 Gov. Bill Clements named Perot head of the “Texas War On Drugs” committee. Traveling around the state, Perot became convinced that drugs weren’t the only problem. He began to speak out against school days that seemed to him little more than a mindless succession of pep rallies, band breaks and athletic rehearsals. He decried the spending of $6.1 million for a high school football stadium in Odessa, and insisted that more money be channeled into improving curricula. “School is for learning,” he said. “School is for work.”

After Democrat Mark White was elected governor in 1982, he chose Perot to head a new committee on education reform. Of 22 states that keep track of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, Texas ranked 17th. Though the sky wasn’t thought to be falling, it obviously needed reinforcement. Perot’s committee proposed a number of changes. Among them: the elimination of pep rallies during the school day; an end to the practice of excusing students from class to participate in extracurricular activities; the establishment of a competency test for teachers and a summary exam for seniors to qualify them for graduation.

Under pressure from Gov. White, the legislature passed the 368-page House Bill 72 in June 1984, with most of the debate focusing on Perot’s insistence on the no-pass, no-play rule. Students were hostile to the bill from the start, and a bumper crop of bumper stickers soon appeared: “I don’t brake for Ross Perot” and “Will Rogers never met Ross Perot.” No sooner did the law take effect than the slogans were supplanted by lawsuits.

One of the first involved Nolan Arnes, a 10-year-old learning-disabled child in Houston. Anyone in his school district who maintained perfect attendance through the school year had been promised a trip to the Astroworld amusement park. Nolan qualified, but in the spring he was ruled ineligible because he hadn’t passed all his courses. “Learning-disabled children are hard to get to go to school in the first place, since they often don’t do well,” complains Nolan’s mother, Lela Arnes. “We had used that trip to Astroworld as an incentive to get him to go to school all year long.”

After the school board denied her appeal, Mrs. Barnes turned to Houston attorney Anthony Sheppard, who was hearing from other chagrined parents as well. Representing 11 clients, Sheppard filed suit to have House Bill 72 declared unconstitutional. In July the Texas Supreme Court upheld the no-pass, no-play provision, but the state legislature hastily amended the law to exempt learning-disabled children. This fall the number of lawsuits reached more than 30. They have been consolidated into a class action that Sheppard is set to argue in Harris County District Court on Nov. 18.

Critics question not only the law’s fairness, but also whether it is motivating students to work harder in class. Texas Football magazine polled some 200 high school players last spring and found that more than a third were changing their academic schedule to avoid difficult courses. Monty Tidwell, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior offensive tackle for Hastings High School in Houston, is bitter over receiving an F in government and losing his chance to impress a college scout in the second half of the season. “I felt terrible, especially when I couldn’t even sit with the team at the games,” he says. “But it won’t make me work any harder.”

Monty’s father, Don Tidwell, a printing company salesman, sympathizes with his son. “School has never been easy for him, but he does the best he can,” he says. “I know what they’re trying to do—turn out more scientists and mathematicians. But no matter how many laws you pass, my son isn’t going to be a scientist or mathematician.”

Some observers believe extracurricular activities are the wrong target, since students with the most intractable academic problems often don’t bother with activities at all. For others, they provide a lifeline of motivation and self-esteem, as well as more tangible benefits. “Look at vocational clubs,” argues lawyer Sheppard. “If you deprive a student of the right to go to one, you might be harming his future and that student maybe isn’t capable of achieving any more academically.”

“The kids today have enough pressure with drugs, alcohol, girlfriends, and now we’re just adding more,” says Richie Robertson, football coach at Waller High School. “A lot of these kids can’t read too well, and now we’re punishing them for it, when it’s our fault really.” Another concern is that teachers may be pressured themselves to pass a star athlete who is facing third-and-long academically.

Defenders of no-pass, no-play, on the other hand, point out that many of the suspended athletes are not struggling illiterates but ordinary students whose grades are falling short by just a point or two. “Most of the kids are failing not because they lack intelligence but because they are not turning in their homework,” maintains Dr. Harriet Arvey, director of psychological services for the Houston school district. “The one thing kids have control of in their lives is their schoolwork, and it is important for their development that they learn mastery of some area in their lives. If the parents won’t enforce the standards, the schools have to.”

The rub is the length of the suspension. “When you’re 16 or 17, six weeks sounds like a lifetime,” says Prosper coach Steve Lane. Torrey Lowe, a 14-year-old Prosper freshman, was dropped from the football team after failing English by one point and home economics by two. Now he feels doubly penalized. “I’ve got to wait until December to come out for basketball,” he says. “But the season starts in mid-November, so I’ll be behind a lot of the guys.”

A consensus seems to be developing in the state to cut the length of the no-play suspensions, perhaps to three weeks. But the rule probably won’t be junked as long as Gov. White remains behind it. “For years Texas has been putting winning athletes on the playing field and didn’t really focus on how well we were doing in the classroom,” he said recently. “Japan doesn’t care how many football games we win…They play hardball economics. The real issue for our children and grandchildren is not going to be no-pass, no-play, it’s going to be no-learn, no-earn.”