Larry Hawkins won't argue with those who complain that high school academics sometimes take a back seat to athletics. He knows that there is the occasional star who leaves school illiterate, and the more-than-occasional standout who uses his athletic skills to avoid academic work.

But he also knows, from 25 years as a teacher and coach, that, for many youngsters, athletics can be the thing that keeps them involved in school, that makes it possible for them to achieve academically.

"All the experts are talking about educational reform these days, and I am amazed that few if any of them have said anything about the importance of athletics and other extracurriculars," said Hawkins. "They just don't think about it."

Hawkins thinks about it. We had talked athletics and academics long before this visit to the University of Chicago, where he is director of the office of special programs. His drumbeat idea, whether the subject is stiffened eligibility requirements for the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the 2.0 grade-point minimum some school districts are now requiring for high school athletes, is: Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

"There is just no question that athletics captures the interest of many kids who are 'out of it' academically and makes it possible to bring them around. But it's also true that nonathletes -- even nonstudents -- develop a sense of commitment to a school through its athletic program. Students, teachers and parents all take pride in a school that is athletically successful."

He underscores the point with a quotation from James S. Coleman, Hawkins' colleague at the university, during a symposium on sports in school that Hawkins put together last November. "When a team is struggling to win a game," said Coleman, a recognized expert on schools, "it is not only the individual athletes who are s