His 7-footer hadn't done well in class because his 7-footer never went to class. So the old coach, Peck Hickman, called the big guy into his office. The coach said, "Joe, you have to go to class. This is a college. We're here to teach you ideals, principles and values for the rest of your life. This isn't just a basketball camp. Joe, you have to decide what you want out of life."
Joe nodded once, twice.
The coach thought Joe might be nodding off to sleep. "Joe," he said sharply, "what do you want out of life?"
"Uh, coach, I always did want a motorcycle."
Hickman didn't tell this story with his hand on a Bible, so the parable may have only a passing acquaintance with the facts. But it touches truth. The truth is some college athletes are washouts, just as some newspaper reporters are, and no amount of counsel will convince them there is more to life than a motorcycle.
They are exceptions, however. The truth also is that most college athletes learn lessons they'll never forget. Here's a guess: if there's one Joe out there, there are a hundred other men and women learning the good stuff you pick up working at any discipline, whether it's basketball or ballet, music or football.
You may not believe that. The NCAA schools themselves may cause you to wonder if they are full of Joes. This week, they passed two academic rules, the thrust of which is (they say) to make certain that schools accept qualified students and then move them toward a degree. "We've raped a generation of black kids," Joe Paterno said, arguing for stricter academic standards.
Well, everybody likes apple pie and is against rape. But the schools do themselves a disservice by creating standards for athletes that do not exist for, say, actors in the theatrical arts department. You need no 2.0 high school grade average to saw away at Beethoven in your university's orchestra.
There's snobbery at work here. If the university is made better by a violin prodigy (and it is, because the place's job is to turn potential into excellence), it is made better, also, by a 7-foot basketball player of grace and skill. They both do beautiful work; the 7-footer just gets sweatier.
But beginning in 1986, athletes to be eligible as freshmen must have a 2.0 high school average in subjects such as English and math, along with a 700 total SAT score or 15 on the ACT.
Once in college, the athlete must advance toward a degree, not just stay eligible by passing an assortment of courses. How this "advance" will be defined is anybody's guess.
Objection to the 2.0/700 rule came from leaders of predominantly black schools. They see it as racially and culturally discriminatory, saying black athletes will suffer the most.
"The most ridiculous thing I've heard," said John Thompson, the Georgetown basketball coach, "is that the rule will 'put sports in perspective.' This rule won't prevent any cheating or corruption. It's just discriminatory. If Congress passed a rule like this, it would be unconstitutional.
"How can you bar kids from participating because of standardized tests when they haven't had standardized opportunities? I understand the so-called intent of the rule. Well, the intent of the cotton gin wasn't to keep blacks in slavery, but it certainly did."
Columnist Carl Rowan has complained of colleges that exploit athletes and abandon them without education. "But I know," Rowan writes, "that the exploitation, the cruelty, did not begin on the college gridiron or the high school basketball court. The path to a life of functional illiteracy generally begins near birth for kids ill-cared for by parents, abused by relatives and neighbors, barely tolerated by teachers.
"Only a fortunate gift of physical skills gains these youngsters the attention of a coach who prevents them for becoming a school 'pushout' or 'dropout' statistic."
But without some such rule, you ask, how can we ever make certain that college athletics is academically pure?
We can't. And there's no need to.
Understand first that universities are hypocrites about athletics and education. They want us to believe big-time athletics is part of the educational process, and it is (although not in the fashion they'd have us accept), but they treat it more often as entertainment. Athletic programs answer to two masters, then, and these masters, by their natures, are at odds.
Universities should quit apologizing for athletics. Quit this bullfeathers about raising academic standards. Nobody believes it. Admit that football and basketball teams are entertainment first, education second. Admit, too, that there is more than wryness in the words of an Oklahoma president who said he hoped to produce a school the football team could be proud of.
Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with the hot pursuit of excellence, which is what universities are all about. Nothing wrong with winning to keep the alumni so happy they kick in money to build chemistry labs. Nothing wrong, for that matter, with a kid thinking he wants to be a pro football player. He likely won't make it, but he will have learned about dreaming and working to make the dream real. Who knows how many political science majors wanted to be U.S. senators and wound up GS-12s, none the worse for wear?
Admit it's show-biz first, then the books. If a kid has a 1.0/500 score but can play defensive tackle, let him play right now. Then find a way to reach his mind. That's what schools are for. Schools are there to answer our needs in whatever way they can. If football is the way, wonderful.
And for every coach who exploits a player, there are a dozen who will say, "You're a gamble, a 1.0/500. But there is a way. We can give you tutors. You just have to remember that football doesn't last forever. You have to be something besides a jock. And if you'll try, so will we."
Nothing wrong with that.