The case of Jan Kemp against the University of Georgia reached a thoroughly satisfactory conclusion last week, with a $2.6 million judgment in her favor. But the financial penalty that the university and its insurers will have to pay, though gratifyingly severe, is hardly the point of the tale. What matters is that the Kemp case forced Georgia's spokesmen to give sworn testimony about the university's attitudes toward the "students" who play football and basketball for it, and that this testimony amounted to a self-inflicted condemnation of the university specifically and intercollegiate athletics generally.
In the history of American higher education, surely a place of honor must be reserved for Fred C. Davison, president of the university, who told the federal District Court in Atlanta that it's no big deal if most athletes who play for Georgia do not graduate: "If they leave us being able to read, write, communicate better, we simply have not done them any damage." Even more memorable are the words of Hale Almond, attorney for the two university officials who were defendants in the case, who said of an athlete enrolling at Georgia: "We may not be able to make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career."
Perhaps that should be the new rallying cry for the Georgia Bulldogs: "If we can teach him to read and write . . . " Go, 'Dogs! That's D-O-G-S! Stomp them 'Cats! That's C-A-T-S! See Spot run. See Spot bounce the ball. The ball is brown. Spot throws the ball in the basket. Go, Spot! S-P-O-T! Spot scores two points. One and one make two. Four minus two makes what? Two! That's two! Ain't college great?
"If we can teach him to read and write . . . " Do we laugh, or do we cry? The University of Georgia, like every other institution in the embrace of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, represents itself as a place the principal business of which is the advancement of higher education. Yet the University of Georgia has admitted, through its president and the lawyer representing two of its officials, that it enrolls "students" who need to be taught, in the "remedial developmental studies program" in which Jan Kemp worked before she was fired, to read and write the English language. Right: A, B, C, D, E, Q, Z . . . well, something like that.
This is an institution that has the gall to call itself a "university" yet accepts students who have not mastered the most rudimentary tools of literacy. It does so not to elevate them from the garbage truck to the mail truck, but to make money off them.
For a few hours each week it shovels these 18- and 19-year-olds aside into "remedial" programs where they learn, if they learn anything at all, what they should have been taught in the first year of grammar school, when they were 6 or 7. Then it trots them onto the football field or basketball court, where they run up and down, occasionally doing injury to themselves, in order to earn millions for the university's athletic department and to inflate the egos of its most sports-obsessed alumni. At the end of their four years of eligibility a few of these "student-athletes" become professional athletes; the rest, some of them only marginally literate, graduate to the garbage truck, or some equivalent thereof.
Many of them, as it happens, are black. Only 4.5 percent of the student body at the University of Georgia is black, but its basketball team is preponderantly black, and its football team is heavily so. Interestingly, one of the two officials Kemp sued, himself black, accused her of being a "bigot," a charge she was able to refute handily. But the real truth is that if racism is to be found anywhere it is in the university itself, which recruits black athletes who are academically unprepared, uses them for its own cynical ends and discards them at the end of four years as if they were no more than . . . well, would you believe slaves?
When a "university" has a black population of only 4.5 percent but wildly disproportionate black representation on its big-time athletic teams, what is that university saying, to the public at large and blacks specifically? No, it is not saying that it is throwing wide its doors to blacks, helping them gain full and equal admission to American society. It is saying that blacks are good at sports and are most welcome as students at Georgia when they are superior athletes -- precisely the reverse of the message being delivered to young blacks by Jesse Jackson, Arthur Ashe and other black leaders who tell them that precious few kids will find riches as athletes, that education must come first. Not at the University of Georgia's athletic department, it doesn't; put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Okay: Let's lay off the University of Georgia. The only real difference between Georgia and almost everybody else is that Georgia got caught. What goes on at Georgia also goes on, to varying degrees and in varying ways, at just about every school that has committed itself to big-time athletics. With the rarest of exceptions, big-time intercollegiate athletic programs are mockeries of everything that higher education ostensibly stands for -- especially, alas, at the major public universities that usually dominate the national rankings.
The football coach at Georgia, Vince Dooley, who is a successful man in his line of work, had this to say about the verdict in the Kemp case: "I would like to reemphasize . . . that throughout the entire ordeal the athletic association has been involved in no wrongdoing, nor been found in violation of any NCAA or institutional regulations." Hey, fellas, our hands are clean -- and the stunning truth is that by the standards of big-time intercollegiate athletics, they are clean. In NCAA athletics, "clean" means that you haven't gone to jail. Yet.
But in higher education, in a true university, what went on at the University of Georgia was obscene, an affront to every person there who is engaged in serious scholarship, research, teaching and learning. To keep its fat-cat alumni happy, the University of Georgia thumbed its nose at the very educational standards it claims to uphold. Its administrators may feel unfairly singled out -- the eminently quotable Fred C. Davison told the court its teams could not "disarm unilaterally" in the dog-eat-dog world of the NCAA -- but the university got just what it deserved: an ineradicable stain on its reputation.