New Contest: Academia VS. Athletics; Sports: the risky road to a career

Harry Edwards recalls when, as a basketball and track star at San Jose State College in the mid-1960s, he was asked by local coaches to speak to ''wide eyed'' young athletes about the glories of stardom on the collegiate sports scene.

''My talk was always a little different,'' says Mr. Edwards, his 6-foot 8 -inch frame dwarfing the chair he occupies in his office on the University of California campus here. ''I always told them sports were great - you visit, you travel - but I never failed to emphasize above all the importance of getting an education.''

That alone might sound like enough to make a high school coach or two a little squeamish. But then, almost apologetically, he delivers his punch line: ''I was young then. I didn't know that only 5 percent of high school athletes play (intercollegiate) sports, and that only 2 percent of college ballplayers ever make it to professional sports.''

That punch line is actually the bottom line of a message this black man, who was raised on sports in the ghetto of St. Louis, has sought to communicate since the early days of the black power movement: that black America's image of sports as the yellow-brick road to success is a cruel mirage.

''I've seen the tragedy a million times,'' says Harry Edwards, his earnestness counterbalancing the exaggeration, ''the college athlete who doesn't graduate, is not drafted, has no skills, no competencies, but is perceived as a hero back home, where he's headed. You want to see some terror!''

He says the word must get out that the dream of ''making it'' via sports comes true for only a very few, while a good education goes a lot further in ensuring success.

To help get that word out, he favors controversial restrictions on participation - restrictions based on grade-point average, attendance, or test scores. But he emphasizes that, since in his view America remains a racist society willing to make ''20th-century gladiators'' of young blacks, the real impetus for education must come from within the black community.

''Unfortunately that's going to be the toughest nut to crack,'' says Edwards. ''When you deprive a people of something they believe in, you deny them a certain hope.''

Today Dr. Edwards is a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, where his classes on the sociology of sport regularly draw overflow crowds. After receiving national attention for organizing the boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, he has remained in the public eye through books and scores of articles with such provocative titles as ''The Black Dumb Jock: An American Sports Tragedy.''

His many and varied public appearances included a stop this summer at William F. Buckley's ''Firing Line,'' where he told an incredulous Mr. Buckley that black success in sports has its roots, not in any racial physical superiority, but in cultural and sociological influences.

But most recently he has entered the limelight for his support of National Collegiate Athletic Association and state or local school district standards employing academic criteria to restrict participation in competitive sports.

Last year the NCAA adopted Proposition 48, which would require athletes to have a 2.0 grade point average in a high school core curriculum as well as a combined score of at least 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or 15 on the American College Testing Program's examination to participate in college sports.

Edwards says that, if anything, the terms of Rule 48 are too lenient. Nevertheless NCAA officials say they expect the requirements, set for implementation in 1986, to be eased. A recent NCAA-commissioned study found that , had the requirements been in force in the past, a significant number of both black and white college athletes who went on to graduate would not have been able to play.

Dr. Edwards says adoption of such rules is a sign that schools, educators, and parents are beginning to grasp the importance of placing sports in a proper perspective. But he points to the fact that Los Angeles School Board member Rita Walters required physical protection while pushing for academic restrictions on sports participation as evidence that opposition in the black community remains virulent.

Speaking easily and eloquently, with none of the profanity that punctuated his public comments a decade ago, Edwards says part of the difficulty in making his case among blacks is that they see other professions as less accessible than sports.

''After hearing my comments, they ask, 'Where are the black doctors and lawyers?' '' says Edwards. He adds, ''On the other hand, they tell me, 'But man, I can turn on the football game, and it looks like Ghana vs. Nigeria!' ''

He says that since so many black families are headed by women, television has become a major purveyor of the masculine image for young black males. ''And the media project the black athlete more than any other positive role,'' he explains. ''The problem is that, when you see the kid interviewed on TV who's made his way with a scholarship to Michigan or USC, but who speaks English like it's a foreign language, the message is: Academics don't count.''

With his own experience and that of other young athletes he's known, Edwards professes little respect for the athletic hierarchies in the nation's secondary schools and colleges. He has turned some of his attention to what he calls ''appalling'' standards in training and injury care, but the family remains his focus.

''A coach or a school cannot miseducate a student about his opportunities down the road if the kid learns at home that he needs an education,'' he says. lift this quote

Parents, he adds, will have to stand by teachers who come under increasing pressure to routinely modify a student athlete's grades, as academic standards are implemented. He further suggests that schools of education should require aspiring coaches - ''who so often go on to become the vice-principals and principals'' - to take a course in the sociological and cultural roles of sport.

Touting the point he's been making since he was a collegiate star, Edwards says, ''We have to convince, not just the kids and the parents, but the coaches, too, that it's in their best interest to have the priority on education. No one should want athletics to be a sickness in the schools.''

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