Paul Slepian, a Howard University math professor, had just seen a TV commercial for a Baltimore sports store, and he wanted me to share his outrage.
"They come on with this very dramatic voice, 'The road to the NBA begins with Adidas . . .' "
The professor had some questions: How many kids are being suckered by such ads into believing that a particular athletic shoe can turn them into stars? How many young boys are being misled into abandoning their academic studies for dreams of riches in the National Basketball Association? How many youngsters without the glitter of these false dreams might be on their way to careers in science or business management? How many are instead dribbling their lives away on the playground?
I offered an answer: fewer than he might think.
Adults succumb to commercials for shampoo or credit cards or blue jeans without really believing that they will wind up as rivals to Farah Fawcett or James Coburn or Brooke Shields. So why do we believe that youngsters who buy Adidas "Patrick Ewings" or Nike "Air Jordans" expect to wind up as NBA all-stars? It goes against the conventional wisdom to say so, but I simply do not believe that very many of the youngsters you see sporting expensive sneaks or working on their jumpers till all hours really expect to get rich in the NBA.
They dream NBA dreams, of course. But what's so strange and new about that? Didn't today's bankers, real-estate tycoons and TV anchors once fantasize about pro sports careers? Didn't they run pigeon-toed like Jackie Robinson, or stick out a stiff arm like Johnnie Lujack? Did they really believe that they would wind up as athletic champions? Of course not. They fantasized, and they had fun.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Howard math professor shared in the fun and fantasy.
The unspoken premise of his outrage is the widely held view that what is normal for middle-class or white kids is unhealthy and exploitative for lower-class black ones.
It's not the suburban Little Leaguer who comes to mind when we think of child athletes pursuing false dreams; it is the ghetto youngster working tirelessly on his spin move. If he worked as hard on his math and English as he does on his jump shot . . .
You've heard it. You might have read it here. But the implication is only half true. The youngsters of our concern are not as dumb as we think. They might not have figured out the odds (thousands of high school players vying for spots on 280-odd Division I NCAA basketball teams, and only 23 NBA teams that hire, on average, fewer than two rookies a year), but they know the truth.
We know that we wouldn't neglect our studies to work that hard on anything unless we thought we could make a living at it, so we assume that ghetto youngsters must expect to make a living at basketball.
The assumption, I suspect, is wrong. The kids work on their game because they know that honing their skills can bring them enormous pleasure. They don't work hard at school because they don't believe in their hearts that there will be any payoff.
Slepian is right when he says that youngsters who work at their academics are almost guaranteed some measure of professional success. But he is wrong, I think, to conclude that most sports-minded youngsters are induced by the hope of pro careers to abandon their school work. After all, most of their nonathletic buddies aren't hitting the books either.
What we need to do is focus on the professor's first point. Especially in the case of inner-city youngsters, we need to make them understand that serious academic exertion is very likely to produce career results, and we need to work at ensuring that those results are forthcoming.
If we can establish in their minds the link between school success and a reasonable degree of affluence -- and if we can make them believe that they really are capable of school success -- we needn't worry about the undue influence of sports-shoe merchants.