What Else the Coaches Might Do for Their Players

January 18, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--I wish the black college basketball coaches who have been raising such a fuss over how many scholarships they can offer aspiring athletes would aim at least some of their rage at an even more disturbing question: How few of their student athletes ever graduate.

With the support of some white coaches, the Black Coaches Association became enraged over the recent decision by the National Collegiate Athletic Association's college presidents and athletic directors not to back down on the cost-cutting move to reduce the number of basketball scholarships from 15 to 13, a total loss of 660 scholarships nationwide.

The coaches, threatening a boycott or some other dramatic action, wanted half of those scholarships back. Otherwise, they argued, 330 students would be robbed of a chance to get a decent education.

''At a time when we're talking about helping kids avoid a life of crime, we should be talking about more scholarships, not less,'' I heard one basketball coach plead passionately on TV one night.

OK, but let's not stop there. Let's not just talk about how many players get into college but also how many have diplomas in their hands when they eventually leave.

The number who don't is appalling. Even while the coaches moaned, sports fans could find the other side of the story on newsstands in Emerge, a national black-oriented news magazine, which lists in its December/January issue the ''Bottom 50,'' a dishonor roll of the 50 large (NCAA Division I) universities that graduated the fewest black basketball players within six years.

And guess what? A startling 44 out of the 50 schools did not graduate a single black basketball player who started his freshman year between 1983 and 1987. Three of them -- Akron, Hawaii and Texas at El Paso -- failed to graduate any black players while graduating 100 percent of their white counterparts.

For the record, 15 of the 50 schools did not graduate any white players either (not counting historically black colleges).

It doesn't have to be this way. The honor roll of exceptions at the other end includes North Carolina's Dean Smith, who saw 83 percent of his black players and 88 percent of his white players graduate while his men's basketball team maintained the most wins of all time and won last year's NCAA championship.

It also includes Georgetown's John Thompson, who ranked 14th in wins while 80 percent of his black players received degrees within six years.

''Most black kids that are athletes are very competitive people, and if you put them in a competitive academic situation, they're going to compete there as well,'' the University of Mississippi's Rob Evans told Emerge. He saw 100 percent of his men's basketball team -- black and white -- graduate in six years.

Even so, so many robust Americans scoff at the notion that ''student athlete,'' like ''cheerleader scholarship,'' needs to be anything more than an oxymoron. The coaches are tickled to trot out blue-ribbon, squeaky-clean colleagues like Georgetown's Thompson whenever they need to show off their best and brightest. Mr. Thompson was there dutifully to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus to avoid a coaches' boycott last weekend.

Coaches praise scholarships as if they were some kind of social do-gooder program, when actually they are used to recruit unpaid talent that earns millions for colleges in return for a shot -- just a narrow shot -- at the pros and megabucks, even though the odds of their making that pantheon of sports stardom are about as good as those of winning a state lottery.

Of the 13,000 players in the NCAA, there are some 2,600 eligible seniors competing to fill only 64 professional slots in the National Basketball Association. Those who don't plan ahead to have a fall-back career of some sort besides parking cars -- or stealing cars -- are sadly fooling themselves.

Emerge found former Creighton University player Kevin Ross working as a janitor and living with his parents in Kansas City. As you may remember, Mr. Ross startled the world by revealing how he had been passed along through public school and college despite being functionally illiterate.

He eventually graduated from Marva Collins' Westside Preparatory School in Chicago, attended college for a while as a student, not a student athlete, and settled a suit last May against Creighton for $30,000 for allegedly denying him the opportunity to participate in the school's academic program.

Here we see a good example of how power-group politics can crowd and eventually overwhelm the best interests of the group. For all their high-minded talk about rescuing kids from the ghetto, today's coaches, black and white, sound more interested in improving their teams than in preparing team members to participate fully in society, not just in sports.

It's a foul ball, players. Don't be fooled. Open a few books while you're in school, besides playbooks.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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