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No basketball player left behind

By Marvin Olasky / January 27, 2005



PRINCETON, N.J.

Leftists love to talk about the structural problems that purportedly keep down the poor, and by that they mean a free market system. But one structural problem truly does exist: the tragedy of inner-city public school systems that make a future of poverty likely for large numbers of students.

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"Coach Carter," which was No. 2 at the box office last weekend, depicts that culture well. Mixed in with good basketball footage shot from a point guard's eye level is a similarly vivid portrait of an urban school in which a principal and some instructors have low expectations for many students on the team, and by extension many students generally.

These students yearn for adult leadership but don't find it, so unless they are pushed by parents, they do as little work as possible. Until, that is, Coach Ken Carter comes along. Terrifically portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson - and keep in mind that this film is based on a true story - he is a former high school basketball star who agrees to coach the school in gritty Richmond, Calif., from which he graduated.

The movie accurately depicts the contract that Carter, a compassionate conservative, had all his players sign. It required them to maintain at least a 2.3 grade point average and not only attend class but sit in the front row, wearing a coat and tie on game day. What's more, he took the contract seriously: When some students cut classes and didn't bother to study, he padlocked the gym.

While the film hypes the event a bit, news stories from January 1999 reveal that Carter actually did lock out his team and forfeit a game. He also tapped into a national desire to see someone taking strong action to promote academics: Carter received more than 3,000 letters and 4,000 requests for the contract. And he produced results: according to newspaper accounts, the team's grade-point average and class attendance both jumped, and time spent in tutoring sessions soared.

One controversial element at the time was that 33 of the 45 members of the varsity, junior varsity, and freshman teams were fulfilling the contract - so why did they have to suffer because 12 did not? Carter in the movie explains that his players are a team, winning as a team and losing as a team. That's not bad, but there's something more: His dramatic action is a slap at the social Darwinist attitude exemplified in one 19th-century saying, "Let buffalo gore buffalo, and the pasture to the strongest."

Over the years I've seen and talked with some of the gored: uneducated 20-year-olds who haven't learned to push themselves and are ready only to push a broom; inebriated and drug-addled 30-year-olds who line up for food and sleeping spots at shelters. Sure, those individuals bear personal responsibility. Sure, they could have bucked the culture surrounding them, but asking a teen not to go with the flow is not all that different from asking an individual to stand up to a tsunami. The key is to get them to higher ground so they won't be washed away, and peer pressure is the major motivator for most teens. Thus, Carter's total team policy makes sense.

All of this works to make a dramatic movie that teens should see and will want to see. (Parents should be aware that this gritty urban film has bad language, provocative dancing, and a drug-related slaying; it's not "Hoosiers.") Sure, the film has so much emphasis on education, hard work, and discipline that The Boston Globe snarled about it playing "like a public service announcement" and asked, "What 11th grader wants to spend a Friday night being hit with such a blunt instrument?"

The answer is: a lot of them, because even those who seem the most hopeless really want a dad, a coach, or a teacher who will show them the difference between vice and virtue.

Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, is the editor of World, a national weekly magazine covering news from a biblical perspective. © 2005 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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