Following a trial that bared the cynical attitude of University of Georgia officials toward its mostly black athletes and awarded Professor Jan Kemp $2.6 million, shock waves are traveling not only through the halls of academia but into the offices of some of nation's best-known athletic directors and coaches.
"We may not be able to make a university student out of [an athlete]," Hale Almond, lawyer for two university officials/defendants, said at the trial, "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."
To some this statement may sound cynical, but to others it is a blanket admission that colleges seldom assume minimal responsibility for educating the athletes whom they exploit. At the University of Georgia alone, revenues from games played by the football team brought in $30 million last year. But in most universities, athletes, after playing their hearts out for their schools, are left without degrees and in some cases without the capacity to read a simple job application.
"Enough!" many people have cried. We must begin educating our college athletes, holding them to the same standards as are the nonathletic students.
In the case of the University of Georgia, Jan Kemp claimed she was being coerced into giving passing grades to athletes. According to her, when she refused to do that, she was fired and subsequently filed suit.
Responding not only to the Georgia lawsuit but to previous criticism as well, the NCAA has instituted Proposition 49, requiring athletes to meet higher academic standards than in the past to gain admission to college. But many observers argue that this new ruling penalizes the athlete more than the university. Indeed, some of these same observers believe that the Kemp case, while holding athletes up to a higher standard, will do nothing for the country's total educational system.
"It wasn't a coach who passed these kids from grades one through six when they weren't able to read," said Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson. " . . . We're just giving educators something to blame for all their problems . . . . What about all those kids who can't read who aren't playing basketball and football?"
Thompson makes a good point when he says coaches are not entirely to blame for the educational inadequacies of many athletes. But Frank Matthews, publisher of "Black Issues in Higher Education," and George Mason University assistant senior vice president, believes that Thompson may be making the educational system the scapegoat.
"Coaches blame educators for the academic deficiences of athletes; and educators, accusing coaches of exploiting students, pass the buck down to the secondary and elementary schools, whose teachers often blame the athletes' parents."
But Matthews further thinks the public points the finger at athletics because it has such high visibility.
"Coach Thompson isn't being hired for the milk and other commercials because he is an educator," says Matthews, "but because he's a successful coach."
Of course Matthews knows that Thompson is concerned about the education of his players. Even as a person who does not pay very much attention to sports, I know that Thompson is not content merely to shape athletes, but tries to build men. Indeed, of players who have played four years under Thompson, 47 of 49 have gotten degrees.
But the tragedy in all the blame passing is that, once again, the black kid who already has too few ways to escape poverty is likely to be left holding the bag.
In no way should a university use a player for four years to increase its revenue and not be responsible for ensuring that he or she gets a good education. If it means that an athlete plays for four years and takes six years to get a degree, so be it.
While the vast majority of universities do not assume this responsibility, a few institutions are totally committed to their athletes' education. But unfortunately the fate of these athletes is left to the whim of the individual coach or athletic director. What the Kemp case makes clear is that the NCAA needs to regulate college academics more and protect the interest of athletes once they're admitted to college.