Thompson Stages Protest, Walks Out of Game
By Steve Berkowitz
In a move intended to transcend the importance of any college basketball game, Georgetown Coach John Thompson walked off the court before the start of his team's 86-60 victory over Boston College last night at Capital Centre.
Thompson said his action was in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's vote last week to deny athletic scholarships to freshmen who fail to qualify for athletic eligibility under the academic standards of Proposition 48. Currently, such players can have scholarships but cannot play as freshmen.
"I've done this because, out of frustration, you're limited in your options of what you can do in response to something I felt was very wrong," Thompson said two hours before the game. "This is my way of bringing attention to a rule a lot of people were not aware of one which will affect a great many individuals. I did it to bring attention to the issue in hopes of getting [NCAA members] to take another look at what they've done, and if they feel it unjust, change the rule."
Thompson did not say how long he would continue his protest. "I'm looking for a commitment for change, even if it isn't done officially," he said. The NCAA has said the plan, to be implemented in the 1990-91 academic year, isn't likely to come up for review before next year's convention.
With a neatly folded white towel draped over the right shoulder of a dark suit last night, Thompson looked and acted just as he does before every game. As his players warmed up, he paced in front Georgetown's bench, his face devoid of expression. Security officers scurried about, plotting the logistics of his getaway and informing Athletic Director Frank Rienzo of late-breaking details. Finally, the moment came.
With player introductions complete, Thompson whirled toward the baseline, flipped his towel to assistant Mike Riley and walked across the court. He crossed the foul lane, cut through the waiting cameramen and exited via the runway to Georgetown's locker room.
As the student section chanted, "Way to go Thompson, way to go!" he disappeared underneath the stands, where a large sedan awaited. He climbed into the front seat on the passenger side, slammed the door and was gone.
Thompson said later that the driver dropped him at his own car and he then drove around for a while. As he passed a convenience store on Benning Road, Thompson said he saw people lingering outside.
"If these kids today don't get that opportunity [at an education], who are they going to look to? Those people lingering at [outside the store]? I had to reassure myself I was doing the right thing ... I'm sure now I'm right."
Thompson said he drove home, listening sporadically to the game on the radio. When the Hoyas went up, 24-7, Thompson said he became too nervous to lister further. "I know what happens sometimes when they get a big lead that early."
Before the game, Thompson said some of his players had asked if they could boycott with him. "I was touched that they would ask, but I did not think that would be appropriate."
Sophomore forward John Turner said, "The team was going to do it with him."
Thompson said it alarmed him that "a rule such as this can be passed this quietly without people getting sufficient information."
On Friday, NCAA officials said the proposed legislation had been available for study for more than a month. But Thompson disagreed, saying few people knew the impact of what had been done. The NCAA officials said the legislation gave no consideration to racial implications, although it has been estimated that approximately 90 percent of the 600 students a year who will be affected are black.
"If you're at the edge of a cliff and you fall, you can debate whether it was a bump or push. But you still made the fall," Thompson said. "If the intent wasn't what appeared, it certainly isn't very good no matter how you view it."
Thompson continued, "I have had an excellent relationship with the NCAA. My concern is with the member institutions who voted this in."
Known as Proposition 42, the plan was approved Wednesday at the NCAA's annual convention and applies to athletes who fail to score a 700 (out of a possible 1,600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or a 15 (out of 36) on the American College Test, and achieve a 2.0 grade-point average (out of 4.0) in a high school core curriculum of 11 subjects.
Currently, freshmen who meet either the grade requirement or the test score requirement are eligible for athletic scholarships, although they are not eligible to practice or compete with their teams their first year in school a year counted against the four years of athletic eligibility allowed by the NCAA.
Proposition 42 was rejected by NCAA convention delegates Tuesday. Wednesday, it was reconsidered and passed, 163-154.
For Georgetown students, the protest gave a ho-hum game meaning. "It got me more fired up for the game," said Bill Rizzo, a junior.
And the opposing coach, Jim O'Brien of Boston College, said he supported Thompson "100 percent" and called Proposition 42 "a fiasco." But, he said, now that Thompson has made his point, "I'm not sure how much he can afford to not participate in any more games."
Rienzo said yesterday that Thompson first called him Thursday night to discuss the possibility of "trying to call attention in dramatic fashion" to his views.
According to Rienzo, Thompson said, "I'm very concerned about what happened and I really think that I either would like to say something or do something. I have some ideas and I want to explore it with you and then ultimately with [Georgetown President Timothy S. Healy]." Rienzo recalled, "At some point during his conversation with me, he said, 'I'd like to walk out.' ...
"There are many things he could have done," Rienzo said, "some that were more radical, some that were less radical. He ultimately chose one that I think provides him an opportunity to continue to teach as we consider his coaching to be."
Rienzo said he supported Thompson's action, "no matter how long it takes."
"It's not often that someone in a position like mine gets an opportunity to do something that deals with
social justice," Rienzo said. " ... I feel that not coaching a game is not a very significant issue when you
talk about the lives of future generations. It is not a significant loss to John Thompson, to his team, to
Georgetown University if it can put the lives of hundreds of kids back in order."
Staff writers George Solomon and Mark Asher contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1989 The Washington Post Company