Academic Standards and Black Athletes

THE charge of racial discrimination is being raised against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) because of its proposed new academic standards for sports scholarships. The loudest cries have come from prominent college coaches like John Thompson of Georgetown University, which consistently fields one of the top basketball teams in the nation. Behind the criticism is the argument that minority students have been so disadvantaged by inferior public education that, by the time they reach college age, they cannot possibly meet the higher new standards. According to this reasoning, the proposed regulations will have the ultimate effect of blocking off many black athletes from rewarding careers in professional sports.

Without being insensitive to the special problems of blacks and other minority groups, it is necessary to characterize these charges as absurd and racist. The basic purpose of education is not to provide a convenient springboard to lucrative contracts in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association, but to teach people how to think, how to make connections with human experience, and, in the words of John Dewey, how to enable people to come into possession of all their powers.

The proposed new requirements can hardly be called stringent, much less discriminatory. The standards are barely at the junior-high-school level. Anyone who can read should be able to pass. No one is suggesting that a potential all-American wide receiver should also be expected to expound on the second law of thermodynamics, or that a star basketball guard should be expected to explain the difference between the quantum theory and relativity. But it does not seem unreasonable to ask that college applicants should be able to pick out the United States on a world map, or identify a couple of recent presidents, or even pass the kind of tests given applicants for citizenship.

No one will argue that public education has distinguished itself in serving minority groups; but we don't remedy the deficiency by giving students automatic passports to college. Thompson's short-lived strike protesting the proposed new standards would have been better aimed if it had been directed against inadequate education on the elementary and high school levels. Indeed, if coaches across the country were to put as much money and energy into making tutoring services available for black athletes as they put into scouting and recruiting, they might not have to worry about academic obstacles in the way of creating contending teams.

An important part of the problem is that sports now occupy such a large part of the university economy that recruiting star athletes has become a major necessity. TV fees for high-ranking basketball and football teams are an important part of a major university's total income. The fact, therefore, that the NCAA is willing to reduce the farcical aspects of athletic scholarships is welcome news. What is proposed represents reasonable expectation of students' applying for college admission. Intercollegiate athletic competition can be a legitimate university function. But moderation and proportion require that the school refrain from making a caricature of education.

Thompson's remarks are an insult to black athletes who have had good scholarship records. Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, Byron Scott and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers, and Jerry Rice and Roger Craig of the San Francisco 49ers are only a few black all-stars in basketball and football who held their own in the classroom.

If the arguments of Thompson are followed to their logical conclusion, educational requirements for star athletes ought to be eliminated altogether. Similarly, if fielding a winning team is to be the main purpose of the university, then let school authorities hire athletes the way they do stadium cleanup crews. Let the schools compete commercially with one another for outstanding athletic performers and put aside any pretense of amateurism. But if schools are not to relinquish their primary identity as an educational enterprise, they should not yield to racial arguments for resisting basic academic standards.

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