PERHAPS I SHOULD feel guilty for gloating over the recent sports-and-studies scandal at the University of Georgia. After all, Athens, home to the university, is also my hometown. My father was on the faculty there for 30 years.
Yet I can't help feeling a sweet vindication.
Prof. Jan Kemp in 1983 blew the whistle on Georgia's practice of passing scholarship jocks who had failed the university's developmental studies program so they could play out their athletic eligibility -- even if they had little or no chance to earn a degree. She was fired for her pains.
Then a jury this year awarded her $2.57 million in damages. Big-time sports, a burden second only to racism in the South, was finally exposed for what it is: a corruption that has distracted Southerners from their perennial standing at the bottom of America's educational ladder. It is also part of the culture of bigotry and anti-intellectualism that drove me -- and so many other Southern expatriates -- away from home in the first place.
My earliest memories of life in Athens center around race and football. I got my first job selling programs at University of Georgia football games, the largest thrill being the end-of-season showdown with Georgia Tech. There were no black players on either team in the 1950s, and the only blacks inside the stadium were confined to a small section of corner seats or sold soft drinks in the whites-only bleachers. Lighter and more profitable work, such as selling programs, was reserved for us white boys.
Football reigned as the supreme cultural event of Athens life. It was a measure of the school's priorities that my father, then an assistant professor, worked during those games as a gatekeeper -- the university paid its faculty so poorly that many of them routinely worked at the stadium for extra money on Saturdays.
My exposure to the demon of racism came at age 10. That, too, involved the university. I overheard a discussion in our kitchen about where our black maid's daughter should go to college. Various institutions far from Athens were mentioned. Uncomprehending, I piped up: "Why can't Rubye just go to Georgia?" I pointed towards the campus not ten blocks from our house.
A stunned silence filled the room. Rubye was frozen with embarrassment. Finally my father spoke: "Negroes can't go to the university," he said quietly. "Only white people can."
Too young to be ashamed -- I hadn't created this mess -- I simply felt outrage. I had been raised to revere the ground the university stood on, and especially loved the acres where football was played.
Racism and football, those twin pillars of Southern culture, have been intertwined in so many ways. Indeed, it was the need for black athletic prowess that moved many Southerners to reconsider their segregationist stand. After all, integration wouldn't be so bad if it meant better football teams, would it? The weakening of one pillar -- segregation -- would be compensated by the strengthening of the other -- football. It became clearly futile to try to compete in the wide world of national rankings if your team was all-white. After all, the other guys had O. J. Simpson and Sam Cunningham.
When University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, a demigod in the South, said black boys could run fleet-footed on the same playing fields as white boys, the South decided it must be all right.
The rednecks loved it. Nothing pleased a crowd jammed into the huge University of Georgia stadium more than standout play by one of its newly-recruited black players. It not only put points on the board but fed a new-found sense of self-righteousness.
Yet this enthusiasm could not be mistaken for a new liberalism. Just returned from several years abroad, I witnessed the uproarious joy of the hometown fans when a young black returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Walking past a tailgate party after the game, I overheard a delighted remark that summed up the prevailing attitude: "Boy, that nigger can run!"
This is the unreconstructed view of blacks as brawny field hands, our new gladiators -- just don't let them near my sister. The irony is that the recruitment of black athletes -- and their passage regardless of academic ability -- has become a major prop in a new system of segregation and white supremacy, making the university look good in nationally televised football, and making it easy to forget that 25 years after it integrated, its student body is still only 4.5 percent black -- in a state whose population is 27 percent black. In its macho preoccupation with sports, Georgia had figured out a way to turn a black fight for justice into a white fight for better football teams.
Meanwhile, the integration of public schools has meant that in rural, southern Georgia, many whites went to so-called "Christian academies" (called "seg academies" by liberals) while blacks filled up the formerly white public schools. This system, often separate and unequal, brings gifted black athletes (and some whites, too) into the university with the equivalent of third- or fifth-grade educations. To keep them playing, they are temporarily funneled into remedial programs such as the one that Jan Kemp taught in. When she refused to further corrupt this already corrupt system, the trouble began.
The unmasking of this structure may do nothing to attack the cancer that still infects Southern life, producing in effect two societies, two educational systems, two standards. Yet it has the same value as the violently reluctant integration of the university in 1961: It makes us confront a system so hypocritical that we can only wonder how it lasted so long.
The South has showed it can sometimes change with startling speed; witness the political changes since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. My hometown would do itself, and the state it is supposed to serve, the ultimate service by relegating sports to the its proper role in the educational process -- a recreational outlet for the many, not a free ride for the few. Jan Kemp's victory before a jury of her Southern peers was a good beginning. Twenty-two years after the lunch counters were integrated, it is like hearing the other shoe drop.