I have on my desk two documents. One is a poll from the Miller Lite Beer people, the other a letter from a retired executive living in Rockville. They make a near perfect match.
The poll reports that two-thirds of all Americans believe that when it comes to the matter of black advancement in society, sports offer greater opportunities than do other fields. Black parents are especially upbeat about the participation of their sons and daughters in professional sports, according to the poll.
The retired executive, who has not seen the poll, would disagree. He would see the results as a symptom of the problem that he thinks begs for attention, particularly from blacks: overemphasis on athletics.
"If there is one hope for major change in the plight of black Americans today," he wrote, "it is in being able to compete scholastically as they now do so well in certain sports. If black athletes learned to move the puck or hit the golf ball as well as they move a football or hit a baseball, they would dominate hockey and golf, too.
"But only a tiny fraction of one percent of blacks would then be able to expect a good life from professional sports. Why can't black leaders spotlight less glamorous but more significant black successes in the workaday world rather than place constant emphasis on Dr. J or Reggie? Worse, why continue the persistent focus on failure: black unemployment, the drug scene, prison conditions and the like?"
Maybe blacks are attracted to professional sports because of the impression that in sports, more than in most fields, competence is richly rewarded. But what tends to be overlooked is that, in contrast to most fields, professional success is available to only a tiny handful. The doctr, lawyer, teacher, engineer or entrepreneur who doesn't quite make the big time can still earn a comfortable living. The athlete who fails to make the big time often fails completely.
"I am a retired manager of a large U.S. corporation," he told me. "In trying to meet our affirmative-action goals, the problem we faced all too often was that so many black applicants could not pass our simple entrance requirements, and many who did became instant candidates for in-house remedial courses in reading and arithmetic.
"But there were outstanding contrasts. The best secretary I ever had was a black lady whom I later promoted to an important management job. Through her efforts, we hired her husband who was desperate to fulfill his role as breadwinner for his family. He is now doing a fine job as a maintenance man--not a janitor--at our headquarters building, and is proud that he could readily support his family if his wife should decide not to continue to work.
"It seems to me that Jesse Jackson used to preach the message that success for most blacks will come from winning in the classroom, not on the athletic field, by becoming as good as the white (or, increasingly, the expatriate Oriental student) who sits next to him."
It's a good point, the attitudes revealed in the Miller Lite poll notwithstanding. Our children need to understand that while virtually all of them can gain some measure of success in the workaday world, precious few of them will succeed as professional athletes. And even those who do will spend most of their lives doing something else. That being so, it makes sense for them to learn to do that something else uncommonly well.