WHEN Deon Thomas elected to attend the University of Illinois, the school considered him the crown jewel of the 1989 basketball recruiting efforts. Then the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began to examine recruiting practices at the University. Now a sophomore, the six-foot-nine Chicago high school star has yet to play a game for Illinois, although he is expected to play this season. (Results of the NCAA investigation were due out this week.)
It is frustrating for big-city communities when promising athletes like Thomas are caught up in situations that put their futures at risk. That's because while only 2 percent of big-city athletes are of blue-chip caliber, more is at stake than their personal careers.
The college experience of those athletes affects the attitudes of high-school students behind them, says Larry Hawkins, president of the Institute for Athletics and Education (IAE) in Chicago.
Athletics can keep school interesting for students who might otherwise drop out, he says: A student in a large city who has participated in sports in grade school is two and a half times more likely to graduate from high school than one who didn't.
Last January, Hawkins brought together officials from 15 of the largest cities in the United States to form the National Urban Athletic Administrators Council (NUAAC). The council tackled sports issues unique to big cities, among them the question of fair treatment for blue-chip athletes.
But while considering ways to influence the NCAA, colleges, high school teachers and coaches, parents, and pre-college athletes themselves, NUAAC discovered it has a lot of ground to cover - and no road map.
For instance, the NCAA has mandated ``dead periods'' when recruiters are forbidden to contact athletes. Alumni boosters simply do it instead, says NUAAC member Roy Allen, director of health, physical education, and safety for the Detroit Public School System. `Hey...you're the greatest'
College recruiters begin to pressure promising athletes as early as their sophomore year of high school. The youths are ``bombarded'' with attention: They receive birthday cards from the recruiters; ``the telephone rings day and night. There's no space for them to breathe,'' Mr. Allen says.
``A kid that comes out of a tough situation'' can be susceptible to a recruiter's illegal inducements, Hawkins adds. ``People start oiling him: `Hey, man, you're the greatest thing since bubble gum. Come over here. Here's what we want you to do.''' Eighteen-year-olds love to hear that.''
Jim Marchiony, an NCAA spokesman, says that regardless of their background, such athletes do know better.
``These kids are not as naive as some people would like you to believe,'' he says. ``Athletes of the caliber we're talking about have been pandered to since they were very young. They know what's right and wrong. They don't need a rule book to know that an offer of $10,000 is illegal.''
The distinction, though, isn't any clearer now that cash payments and merchandise giveaways have seeped into high school sports, a situation Hawkins calls ``off-base, corrupting.''
``Those concerns have been raised,'' says John Gillis of the National Federation of State High School Associations. This is the second year in which schools have received $1,200 for appearing in a sports match broadcasted by Sports Channel America, a Long Island, N.Y., cable station. ``It's not a lot of money,'' Mr. Gillis notes, comparing it to the $1 billion CBS paid to the NCAA just to broadcast post-season college basketball and other championship tournaments for seven years.
Some high schools get support in the form of free athletic shoes from shoe manufacturers, says Hawkins. ``These kids then become salespersons.''
Pressure from parents
Pressure on athletes to sell themselves can also come from friends and even parents.
``There's so much street talk,'' Hawkins says. ``You're going to get this; you're going to get that.''
Occasionally, parents of a top athlete ask Hawkins how to get recruiters to bid up the price. Hawkins's advice: ``Don't ask anybody for anything illegal. Then nobody owns you. You only want what's legally available. Ask up front for what you want, and ask them if they can provide it legally.''
He calls fixations on cars and money ``foolish, childish.'' Will the school provide tutors? Will it give the athlete a scholarship for an extra year so he can graduate? How many hours of practice are required? Will there be time for work in the library? Will the dorm be conducive to study? ``That's what the adult should be talking about,'' Hawkins says.
Through seminars, counseling, and other programs the IAE offers, Hawkins tries to teach students to make decisions based on life goals, not sports goals. ``You have to build something in the youngster,'' he says.