High school sports skips ethics class

MIKE LITTWIN

October 02, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Dunbar stands accused of recruiting a star basketball player from a Baltimore County school.

Nobody is shocked. Nobody is even surprised.

Dunbar, a perennial basketball power, has been stocked for years with transfer students. Last year, the Poets, playing a national schedule with road trips that would be the envy of most college teams, went unbeaten on the way to winning a so-called national championship.

And nobody seems concerned that there is such a thing as a national high school basketball championship (it's actually a USA Today poll). Nobody wonders if this is appropriate.

Does Dunbar recruit, as Ned Sparks, executive secretary of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, alleges?

Maybe a better question would be: Who doesn't recruit? And even when that question is asked, nobody blinks.

It's an open secret that some of the area's private high schools recruit athletes. They pay their tuition. They bring them in to play soccer or lacrosse or football or basketball or whatever is the sport du jour. There are actually people who hang out at the rec centers in search of likely prospects.

Is something wrong? Is winning everything? "I wonder how these schools whose population is, let's say, 85 percent white -- that's a conservative estimate -- end up with such a large percentage of black athletes," said Meredith Smith, basketball coach at Southern High. "I'm not saying anyone is recruiting. Perhaps it's a coincidence.

"It's probably the same coincidence that a lot of prominent basketball players end up at Dunbar. I don't think it's fair to question that situation unless you question across the board whether or not it's ethical."

OK, we'll question across the board. It's not ethical. It's not ethical anywhere.

What we have here is another kind of trickle-down theory. The worst aspects of the college game have made themselves apparent in the high school game. How about this: An All-Metro basketball player transfers to Dunbar, and they insist he's doing it for academic reasons. Wouldn't that explanation make a college coach proud?

This is a system out of control.

And not just in Baltimore. Or in Maryland. In Los Angeles, there was a story about an athlete whose parents were set up in a condo miles across town by a booster so the football or basketball player could enroll at a different high school. Others are enticed with expensive basketball shoes.

How important are high school sports?

In some small towns, the high school football team is as important as the Orioles are to Baltimore.

In Chicago, where the school system is facing another budgetary crisis, the principals got together recently to vote to eliminate high school sports -- and other extracurricular activities -- on Nov. 1.

Unless somebody comes up with some money.

Somebody will. You can be sure of that. What the principals know is that people will rally to save a school's basketball team, but not its chemistry lab. There will be hand wringing and teeth gnashing and arm twisting and, most important, fund raising.

L Meanwhile, school systems deteriorate and nothing gets done.

This newspaper and most others devote far more space to high school athletics than to high school academics, even though everyone concedes we have an education crisis in this country.

So, of course kids transfer from one school to another to play basketball. Why shouldn't they?

If you go to Dunbar, you probably can get a college scholarship; you might end up as the next Reggie Lewis or Muggsy Bogues.

These are the guys who get the ink. They're the ones who get famous.

Not surprisingly, any real sense of proportion is hard to come by. A couple of years ago, there was a Harris poll, surveying high school athletes. Of the black athletes, 59 percent said they expected to play ball in college and 43 percent said they expected to play pro ball. Of the white players, 39 percent expected to play in college and 16 percent in the pros.

Here's the truth: No more than 1 percent of high school athletes play in college. Only one in 10,000 high school athletes plays pro ball.

Nobody knows the truth because it doesn't seem to be in anyone's interest to tell it.

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