JOHN THOMPSON, the winning basketball coach at Georgetown University, is not one of those coaches who take lightly the obligation of colleges and universities to educate student-athletes. Nor does Thompson, though he is black, believe that every black youth in America is ``entitled'' to a college education - especially if he can slam-dunk. Under his tough regimen, Georgetown basketball players - predominantly black - have one of the best graduation records in major college sports. So when John Thompson protests a National Collegiate Athletic Association rule whose ostensible purpose is to stiffen admission requirements for college athletes, one takes notice. He has earned credibility on the issue.
Proposition 42, adopted by NCAA schools this month, limits athletic scholarships to students who maintain a 2.0 average in core high school courses and who also achieve certain minimum scores on standardized aptitude tests. The new rule modifies Proposition 48, under which athletes who had the grade-point average but fell below the test thresholds could receive scholarships, but were ineligible to play during their freshman year.
The majority of Proposition 48 students were black. The reason, according to some educators, is that standardized tests are culturally biased against blacks, particularly those from the ghetto. Experience shows, they add, that with tutoring and other remedial help during their year of ineligibility, many poor black athletes are able to perform college work.
Supporters of the new rule say they were trying to curb recruiting abuses. Opponents see suspect motives behind the vote, having to do with discrimination or with competitiveness among schools and conferences.
What's clear is that, as Thompson notes, some youths who previously would have had at least a shot at a college education will no longer have that opportunity (unless they can get other financing).
Like many in the US, we are concerned about the growing professionalization of college sports; so long as athletics purport to be part of an academic environment, the players should be young men and women with a capacity for higher education.
But we also believe in opening the doors of opportunity, especially for those to whom the doors have been barred unfairly.
The real scandal in college athletics has less to do with the way players enter the system than with the way they leave it. Most big colleges and universities have a dismal record when it comes to ensuring that scholarship athletes graduate. Too many coaches in the major, revenue-raising sports - abetted by see-no-evil administrators - only feign interest in players' education.
Some universities, through the leadership of coaches like John Thompson and equally strong-minded administrators, have proved that academic excellence is not incompatible with success in big-time athletics. The NCAA should be following the example of these institutions, rather than slamming the door on some minority athletes.