Few characterizations annoy athletes more than "dumb jock." But those words are especially worrisome to black athletes. They particularly upset Carl Lewis, who this week won the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete.
Now being called the greatest track and field athlete since Jesse Owens, Lewis is ineligible to compete on the University of Houston track team.
"People will think I'm some dumb, idiot jock, no matter what," he says bitterly.
And he's not. His 1.59 grade-point average belies his academic upbringing. Both of his parents teach school, and an older brother is a Brandeis University graduate.
What amazes me is that someone didn't grab Carl and say, "There is no pro track. Make sure you get your degree."
Yet Houston Athletic Director Cedric Dempsey claims that Lewis "had every opportunity for tutoring, but turned it down, saying he could do the work without them. We believed him."
A month ago Lewis set a world indoor long jump record of 28 feet 1 inch. He runs 100 meters in 10 seconds flat and 200 meters in 20.66 seconds.
A three-unit history class was his downfall. Because the professor refused to reschedule an exam, and because Lewis missed too many discussion sessions, he failed the course. But Carl was proceeding on another set of assumptions:
"Athletes on scholarship at Houston regularly make arrangements to take exams at odd times. I assumed my situation would be taken care of. But it wasn't."
Somebody goofed and, as a result, a triple-threat athlete has had his record blemished.
Houston Coach Tom Tellez believes that Carl "suddenly got too good too soon. Tremendous demands are made on him, and he is besieged by offers to run in meets all over the place. I don't always agree with the demanding offcampus schedule he keeps, but as long as he fulfills his obligations to our team, we cannot forbid Carl from running whenever he likes."
Lewis must shoulder some of the blame. He knew athletes on scholarship must pass 24 units of study each year to remain eligible for varsity teams.
Carl's sister Carol, also a track athlete at Houston, is bitter: "Carl is getting too much pressure to compete in outside meets that are termed important. Some of the meet directors don't have any consideration at all. The president of the Meadowlands calls our athletic director to see if Carl can come two days early to help with publicity. And that was after Carl first told this guy no."
Carl realizes he must realign his priorities, and he plans to graduate in 1984 and then try out for the Olympics.
Nine months ago, when Carl Lewis was first noticed carrying a 1.59 average, the system should have red-flagged him. Can one plausibly expect a 20-year-old to carry a full academic load and run in school meets and outside events, after barely maintaining a C average previously?
Dempsey is sympathetic but firm: "It is just as embarrassing to the University of Houston as it is to Carl that he is ineligible. We offered him tutorial help. He turned it down."
Carl's parents are worried, his coach is without the services of a world-class athlete, the athletic director is embarrassed and Carl is bitter. And all of this could have been prevented.