A Goal For Black Athletes

DERRICK Z. JACKSON

November 03, 1993|By DERRICK Z. JACKSON

In 1968, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos shocked the world by thrusting black power fists from the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympics. Harry Edwards, today a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, urged African-American athletes back then to ''liberate black people through the use of athletics.''

Liberation never happened. A thimbleful of African-American men have million-dollar contracts, while a quarter of African-American men ages 20-29 have a criminal record. Most top athletes aspire to become stand-up comics for junk food and jock shoes. Few use their clout to be a Jim Brown, the 1960s football star who mediates gang wars in Los Angeles, or a Dave Stewart, the pitcher who feeds the homeless.

A new failure to use athletics to liberate African-Americans has unfolded. The mistaken are people who should be wiser than the athletes themselves: African-American coaches.

The Black Coaches Association has threatened marches and boycotts and formed a joint task force with the Congressional Black Caucus to fight the governing body of university sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The black coaches dislike new NCAA academic standards. None of the NCAA's 14 executives are African-American. The Black Coaches Association is right that there should be African-American NCAA executives. It is dead wrong about academic standards.

In 1986, the NCAA required high school athletes to graduate with a 2.0 grade-point average or have a 700 out of a possible 1,600 SAT score to earn a scholarship. Those who just missed the grade cut can earn playing eligibility by spending their freshman year in class on non-athletic aid or by working their way through school.

Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, a member of the Black Coaches Association, said the rule discriminated against low-income African-American athletes who often blow culturally biased standardized tests. In 1986, when the 700/2.0 rule began, the NCAA said the percentage of African-American scholarship athletes dropped from 27 percent to 23.5 percent. Since then, high school athletes began meeting the standard. The African-American percentage of athletic scholarships is back up to 25.5 percent.

Now the NCAA wants to raise the floor. In 1995, if you have a 2.0 grade-point average, you must have a 900 SAT score. If you have a 700 SAT, you must have a 2.5 grade-point average. This so angers the Black Coaches Association that University of Southern California basketball coach George Raveling said, ''We're fighting a system . . . that is about to legislate us out of business.''

African-American coaches and politicians should be more worried that mediocre students soon will be out of business.

To be sure, the SATs do not predict final academic success. The NCAA is hypocritical, holding athletes responsible for grades while not having a set of penalties for schools that exploit free labor for huge profits while not graduating them. While major colleges graduate 52 percent of all students, only 23 percent of African-American top college basketball freshmen of 1983 and 1984 graduated within six years.

However, this is also a time when there are no backup options for African-American youths who are not challenged toward academic excellence, let alone a 2.5. Factory jobs have gone abroad. Many service industry jobs pay barely above the poverty level. Today's top jobs require science, math, foreign languages and solid English.

The Congressional Black Caucus should not be defending mediocre entrance standards when African-Americans already overwhelmingly dominate basketball, have a strong presence in football and are raising their grades in high school. The Black Caucus' time would be better spent defending the thousands of non-athletic African-Americans whose only game is a degree and whose top opponents are tuition hikes that vastly exceed the rate of inflation.

By clinging to the 2.0, the Black Coaches Association sends a clear message not just to athletes, but to African-Americans in general, that all we have to do in life is earn a C.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for Boston Globe.

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