In Texas, high school athletes are being asked to pass their courses before suiting up for games. In Georgia, a one-time teacher won a $2.6 million award from the university after being fired for opposing favored treatment for athletes, and the NCAA has raised eligibility requirements for athletes. Something is happening. Call it the "Revenge of the Nerds."
All across the nation, high school and college sports programs are being scrutinized, and awful things are being found. A professional football player, an alumnus of a fine school, is arrested and found to be functionally illiterate. College coaches complain that their athletes are graduating from high school unable to read playbooks. At the University of Georgia, the now- celebrated Jan Kemp says that athletes were admitted who received a flat 400 score on their college boards -- what you get for merely having a pulse.
Cynics can celebrate. America can claim to have abolished sexism in the exploitation of young people. Both men and women are now exploited for their bodies -- catching passes in their own distinctive ways. But pardon me for suspecting that the effort to reform school sports had little to do with exploitation of men, women or -- in particular -- blacks. It has to do, instead, with the nagging sense that the nerds were right all along -- that we have been celebrating the wrong values.
The thing about excellence in sports is that it seems, and very often is, a gift. You either have it or you don't. And if you have it, and if you're young, you don't have to work very hard at it. Certainly that is the message conveyed by, say, Jim McMahon, the quarterback for the Chicago Bears. He drinks, he parties -- and he hits his man the next morning.
That sort of thing makes sports a target. The American celebration of the extemporaneous, of the carefree -- of all things associated with youth -- has cost us. Japan, to us a nation of nerds, is beating us all over the place. The Japanese may play baseball well and ski like champs, but in this country they are seen as the antithesis of what youth culture stands for. They work hard. They study. An American student gets an average of a half-hour a day in homework; in Japan it is two hours. In the United States, 32 percent of 4-year-olds attend school. In Japan the figure's 63 percent. The typical American student has one year of high school math; In Japan it's three.
The figures don't necessarily speak for themselves, but the results do: the average American student is spoiled. That is the popular judgment, too, of the American worker, especially blue-collar workers -- the ones who made all those shoddy cars. It hardly matters that both the worker and the student are scapegoats for awful decisions made by others -- management, school boards. The fact remains that the judgment is in: America has to work harder. Japan, for one, says so.
The result is that sports has become something of a scapegoat. As Georgetown's basketball coach, John Thompson, has pointed out, the real problem is not the occasional athlete who enters college an illiterate and exits the same way -- but all the kids who can neither play ball nor read.
There are many reasons for the criticism being levelled at school sports. Some of it stems from jealousy -- the envy of the schoolboy athlete who, seemingly without effort, got the girls and the glory. Some of it stems from a genuine concern for the well- being of the athletes and even a sense of outrage that in exchange for filling a stadium they don't even learn to read. And some comes from the corruption of what is supposed to be amateur athletics.
But the most telling criticism comes from the nerds. It is they who see the abuse of school sports as representing what's bad about American education in general -- its emphasis on fun, extemporaneous activity and instant gratification. When these become paramount -- when they finally come to corrupt whole institutions -- then it is clear that the wrong values are being celebrated. The nerds have been saying that all along. Now they have their revenge.