- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

As "March Madness" approaches, I feel confident that I am not the only basketball fan looking forward to the heart-pounding action and sheer athleticism that the NCAA serves up annually. That many of the first-tier players happen to be black is hardly a secret. That I have no trouble believing that there are basketball coaches out there who care more about their players than they do about the score at the final buzzer may strike some as surprising, but believe it I do. At the same time, I worry about the contention, expressed by Temple coach John Cheney, former Georgetown coach John Thompson and others, that college is a better place for inner-city black athletes than the mean streets, because it raises a good many problems not the least of which is the message that we don't expect much, academically, from black athletes with an impressive vertical leap.

Such people regularly argue that relying, even partially, on SAT scores as a predictor of success in college is to declare yourself a racist. Why so? Because the test itself, they claim, is biased to its teeth and thus unfairly disadvantages black athletes who had the bad luck to grow up in bad neighborhoods. The solution? Get rid of any messengers bearing unpleasant news and replace them with upbeat stuff about how playing Division I basketball turns disadvantaged kids around.

My hunch is that these people are demanding coaches, not only in terms of expecting that players be disciplined (that is, attend practices and team meetings assiduously), but also that their would-be players get the team's playbook down cold. These are non-negotiable expectations, and if a player can't meet them, I feel certain that any basketball coach worth his salt would have no reservations about yanking a scholarship. In this situation, pleas that black athletes just can't cut it would fall on suddenly deaf ears. Why so? Because in their heart of hearts these coaches know that black athletes, including those who grew up in miserable circumstances, can master the intricacies of even the most intricate basketball strategy. All of which leaves me in something of a pickle: To insist that student athletes pass a coach's test is just as unfair, just as racist, if you will, as we are told the SAT is.

Something is very wrong with this picture. For one thing, it sells black athletes short. Rather than arguing about what blacks can't do an assumption that shares much with the bigotry of an earlier age we need to concentrate on what they can accomplish. Once the word gets out that a reasonable academic showing is expected, I suspect that most black athletes will hit the mark, and that many will surpass it. What prompts me to such a conclusion? My experience, for one thing. I have seen too many black teen-agers burning up a chess board or putting together lyrics that stretch the possibilities of language for me to feel that a decent score on the SAT is beyond their capabilities. And I certainly don't think that there is something hard-wired into the genes that somehow prevents black athletes or black students in general, for that matter from successfully competing in college-level classes. I am, in short, not a racist but I worry that other, apparently well-meaning folk might be. Black college athletes deserve respect, but not when it is given on the cheap or when excuses become a substitute for academic performance.

I would urge that the NCAA worry less about what constitutes a minimal set of academic standards and more on challenging black athletes and, yes, then helping them to give the stereotype of the dumb jock the drubbing it deserves. Put another way, it is high time that the NCAA take the oxymoron out of the phrase, "scholar-athlete." For far too long black athletes, coaches, and fans have worried about the care and feeding of big-time players and looked the other way when their eligibility was over.

At their best, collegiate sports teach valuable lessons about character. Teams deal with adversity, with disappointment, with losses as well as wins. The same things are true of life and in this sense, the message currently being beamed, particularly to black high school athletes, is that those in charge separate the credo of the basketball court from the classroom.

Again, I would argue that this sells black athletes short. Ask them to hit a high academic bar, and they will even if their jump shot suffers a bit in the process. If coaches really have the best, long-term interest of their players in mind, they will agree with me. Sadly enough, many don't.

Sanford Pinsker is a professor of humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.

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