John Thompson and Bill Russell, former teammates on the Boston Celtics and still friends, were talking about education the other day waiting for a celebrity golf tournament to begin.
Russell, now a businessman and television commentator, said that if the University of San Francisco had not made an exception for him, his daughter likely would not be attending Harvard Law School. Thompson, basketball coach at Georgetown University, agreed, saying that if Providence College hadn't made an exception for him, his son wouldn't be attending Princeton University.
Both men were the first in their families to attend college.
"What's that boy's name from Tulane? (Hot Rod) Williams?" Thompson said. "Don't tell me that Williams was exploited. Tell me what his child will do. I saw a little baby sitting in his lap (in a magazine article). I'm willing to bet that his son, as a result of Williams' experiences, will be better off. Education comes in a delayed effect sometimes.
"If I expose you to something, you may not get the degree. I've got a former player who was not responsive to education who is as responsive as hell to his child's education, because he's been exposed to some things.
"You know what I think about kids graduating, but I've just seen too many examples of kids and guys who are adults who are in the mainstream of society who got there because of this system we have. I do think it is bad, but I know far more guys who've come from the system than have been exploited by it."
Thompson is worried about the NCAA passing what he calls "crisis legislation" to a problem that he says is no worse now than when he attended college 25 years ago, only more publicized. He is especially worried about Proposition 48, requiring a 700 minimum score (out of 1,600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or a 15 (out of 36) on the American College Test and a 2.0 garde-point average (out of 4.0) in a core cirriculum of 11 academic courses to be eligible for first-year eligibility in Division I.
Proposition 48 was passed at the 1983 NCAA convention, to become effective Aug. 1, 1986. Although NCAA officials and leading black educators are trying to reach a compromise that will reduce the impact on the 16 predominantly black schools in Division I, 59 percent of Division I presidents responding to a Washington Post poll favor Proposition 48 as currently written.
According to a $200,000 study commissioned by the NCAA, six of every seven black men's basketball players and three of every four black football players who received athletic scholarships at the nation's largest colleges would not have qualified for first-year eligibility under Proposition 48.
In addition, more than one of every three white men's basketball players and just under one of every two white football players would not have qualified either, according to data compiled by Advanced Technology Inc. of Reston.
Thompson agrees there should be some standard but says test scores and core curriculum are not the answers because of this country's decentralized educational system. That is why individual assessments are necessary, although he concedes there are players today who do not belong in college.
Thompson says athletes are not totally responsible for their academic problems. In fact, he said, "It may be a greater exploitation in stopping them from coming to some of these universities and not educating them than it is because a few kids took bribes and a few kids took drugs."
He disagrees strongly with educators who say Proposition 48 will serve as an incentive to black athletes to score 700 on the SATs and have a C average in a core curriculum.
"You can make all the rules in the world," he said. "The rule doesn't kill the problem. The problem starts in grade school; the problem starts in junior high school; the problem starts in high school. These people have to have resources to develop these kids.
"I don't care what anybody says. That's been the only avenue of a lot of these kids to be introduced to the mainstream of society. It also has been an inspiration to those kids who have not been athletic.
"Joe Louis caused a hell of a lot of doctors, a hell of a lot of lawyers and a hell of a lot of scientists among the black community. Don't ask if Joe Louis would have passed the college boards. It's hard to set up rules and laws at the top if you haven't put a conscious effort in the bottom."
Of core curriculums, Thompson said, "How about a kid who has to take French III, or French II, to get into college, and they don't offer it, or they don't have somebody in the school who's teaching it, or you don't have an atmosphere in the school that's conducive, or you don't have a biology lab. But Johnny has turned 19 now and has not been able to do it. He's been locked into a neighborhood because of his parents. His only avenue is sports. You've got to deal with that."
Thompson says he told Georgetown professors when he was hired that big-time sports had no place on the university campus.
"But I didn't put it there," he said. "I was hired to do the job.
"I would love to see all athletics stopped for a year and everybody give a conscious effort to try to evaluate and come to a solution, to fight and to fuss and to argue and to make an assessment of what's going on . . .
"You hear all this crisis legislation. People are running in and saying, 'Let's do away with it.' They had a riot at the stadium and cut out the City Championship game in Washington for years, rather than to say let's go in and administer this thing correctly, because it is good. That's the easiest way. Lazy people cut things out."