LIKE MANY SPORTS FANS around the country, we enjoyed watching Marquette University's basketball team win the national collegiate championship Monday night. It seemed fitting that the victory went to a team that entered the tournament as an underdog and to a coach who had already announced his retirement at the end of this season. College basketball will miss Al McGuire, one of the few coaches willing to speak freely about the shortcomings of the business that paid his salary. He deserved to go out in style, reaching at last the goal that even he must have thought impossible a couple of months ago.
But as we watched the game, and thought of some of the things Mr. McGuire has said, we also thought section of this newspaper last week. In them, Leonard Shapiro and Donald Huff examined the (almost) impossible dream that professional sports create in the minds of thousands of young men and what happens to many of them when that dream collapses. The dream, of course, is just that - a glittery, golden vision of fame and wealth and security for life. It derives from some seductive statistics: The average salary of players in the National Basketball Association is $109,000 a year; that of players in the National Football League is slightly more than $50,000. How else can a young man get so rich and famous so quickly?
How else, indeed? The catch is to be found in some other statistics demonstrating that the odds against hitting that jackpot are monumental: One of every 5,000 high school basketball players will reach it; so will one of every 17,000 high school football players. Yet the allure is so great that thousands of youths devote practically all of their formative years to pursuing it. Urged on by commentaries about how hard and how long the superstars practiced, they forego all else for those hours on the playgrounds.If they beat the odds, success - at least in a financial way - is theirs. If they don't, they go back to their neighborhoods all too often as failures and with no training to do anything but play games.
Reporters Shapiro and Huff located eight former all-Metropolitan or all-state high school athletic stars in London Reformatory. They told the stories of other once promising young men who committed suicide rather than live with the inability to make the sports big-time. There was the story of the All-Met basketball player who never used his college scholarship because he couldn't read the signs directing him to the coach's office. And the one of the high school star who received A's in his junior and senior years but could read only at the third grade level.
Where is the fault? It is in the glorification that society gives to those who excel in sports, in the demands of alumni groups that coaches and schools produce winning teams, in the willingness of teachers to give sports stars passing grades, in the failure of high schools and colleges to recognize that they must perpare even star athletes to be functional citizens, and - perhaps more importantly - in the parents who not only accept but encourage the playground regime of their children.
The problem, while a universal one, is focused in black, urban neighborhoods where athletic success is the most visible way out and among black athletes because too many coaches still expect less academic work from them than from whites. It was to the parents of those athletes that Arthur Ashe, the first black tennis star, addressed these words recently in the New York Times:
"While we are 60 per cent of the NBA, we are less than 4 per cent of th doctors and lawyers. While we are 40 per cent of the NFL, we are 11 per cent of the bricklayers and carpenters. While we are 35 per cent of the major league baseball players, we are less than 2 per cent of the engineers.
"For every hour your son spends on teh playground, let him spend two in the library."
So while we enjoyed watching Al McGuire reach his impossible dream, we kept wondering how many of those players we have seen on the basketball courts in the last few weeks will reach theirs. And we kept wondering how many of those who don't will be in any way prepared for an adult life in which sports are games and not a way of life.