CAPE CORAL, Fla. — Alto Tarver is not your average high school grad. He’s given his all, on the field, the court, and the classroom.
“I was in global studies, national honors society this year, and the IB program,” he said.
The humble Cape Coral High alum graduated in June with a 4.93 GPA, that’s thanks to a supportive dad and a mom who doesn’t need a report card to know how he’s doing in school.
“Sometimes she knows my grade changes before I know my grade changes,” said Tarver.
He managed to stay on top of his grades while acquiring 200+ community service hours, running on the track team, and playing basketball and football.
Mom and dad cheered him on at his games, and even bonded over an NBA finals game in the living room right before graduation. But, they always put his academic career first.
So, when it came time for his senior award ceremony, he knew he would receive summa cum laude status for his high GPA, but he was shocked to see which award he would receive.
“I was looking for my name, and I had seen it under physical education,” he said. “I felt almost betrayed.”
Other awards granted at the senior ceremony included: Principal’s Nest for Academic Excellence, Involvement and Academic Excellence Awards in several subjects.
Tarver says many students would be thrilled to receive a P.E. Award, many of whom look like him, but don’t have the same academic accolades.
“I’ve seen other black kids get the P.E. Award before. So, for me to get the P.E. Award, and I’m a person that takes academics more serious, it didn’t feel as good,” he said.
Antwoine Beard, Physical Education Instructor at Quality Life Center, has seen his own students overlooked like Tarver. He says that emphasis on athletic ability could be based on what students athletes can do for the school.
“A lot of it has to do with coaches just trying to get the best out of them for the years that you’re there,” he said. “People will think just because you’re a great athlete, that’s all you are. That’s not the case.”
But, the Lee County School District says they didn’t just recognize Tarver for his athleticism. In a statement the district wrote:
Academic Awards are decided by merit and the student was honored with those that he earned. In addition, the principal nominated him for a statewide academic award and wrote a letter of recommendation for his college applications.
Rachel: People may even say, well, at least you got something! What’s your response to that?
Alto: I don’t really feel like that’s the - that’s not the point.
Tarver says the point of this story isn’t to put his alma mater on blast. It’s bigger than that. Professional athletes say high schools and colleges often put black athletes on this pedestal, because they deserve it, but also based on the revenue they can bring.
But going pro is a dream most athletes like Tarver have to box out. That’s because less than one percent of high school athletes go to the major pro leagues and less than two percent of college athletes make it to the NFL or NBA. that’s according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA.
Fort Myers legend and former NBA player Walt Wesley was one of the lucky ones.
Before he played for the L.A. lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers among several other teams, he was a student athlete at Dunbar High School, and also witnessed what Tarver experienced.
“Minority athletes, and especially black athletes have always been looked upon as jocks!” he said.
Wesley said even in the professional sports world, black athletes would often get overlooked when questions came up about topics outside of sports.
Another Fort Myers great, Deion Sanders is always reminding student athletes that they’re students first. Shortly after Tarver received the P.E. Award, Sanders tweeted to high school athletes to chase a 3.5 GPA or better and good character rather than college sports offers. All things Wesley says Tarver did, but still fell short.
“We say work, earn and achieve these things, and you will get this. When that doesn’t happen, that breaks you down,” said Wesley.
Tarver felt he was forced back into a stereotype of what a black student athlete is.
“I feel like them giving me the PE award kind of put me back into that box that I tried so hard to get out of,” he said. “It felt bad to feel like they only cared about my athletics, and how good I could make the school look.”
The better a team plays, the more money schools make.
On average, the NCAA makes close to $32 million every year for football revenue, that’s not including men and women’s basketball, baseball and track and field - all of which bring in at least $1 million a year, each.
Another Fort Myers star player, of a different “sport,” Fort Myers Fire Chief Tracy McMillion explains why that pedestal sends the wrong message.
“Unfortunately, through society I think the cultural norm has been that in order to be successful, especially as a person of color, that a lot of time is through athleticism,” he said.
McMillion was appointed Fort Myers first black fire chief last year. Before he was chief, before he was even a firefighter, he was a high school athlete like Tarvar. Even though he could play basketball and football, he choose a different path, in part to inspire students who look like him.
“I’m out there showing that there are other opportunities, and other avenues to do or be whatever you want to be,” he said.
He encourages Tarver to keep moving forward despite exterior forces; advice Tarver’s already taking into consideration.
“I kind of realize what they think of me and the awards they give me - the accolades that they recognize aren’t the ones that really matter,” he said.
Wesley says some of the responsibility is on educators to be more intentional about what recognition they give students.
“We need to be a lot more in touch with our students and other things that their doing aside from their athletic endeavors that we can go in the stands and watch,” he said. “He’s just more than just an athlete.”
Rachel: When people try to force you back into this stereotype of what they think a black man should be, or a black athlete should be, or a black person should be, what are you going to do in those situations?
Alto: There’s only one thing to do, and that’s to prove those people wrong.
Tarver received his final report card in the mail at the end of June, and actually earned a 5.22 GPA when all was said and done. He’s already settled into his dorm at Florida State University, where he’ll study criminal justice with a minor in business this fall, thanks to an academic scholarship.