Hornung Was Honest About Black Athletes, Many Universities Aren't

NFL Football great Paul Hornung quickly apologized for his wrong-headed and insulting call for Notre Dame to drop its academic standards to get more blacks into football uniforms at the school, the implication being that black athletes are dumber than white athletes. But a quick check of his alma mater's football roster showed that Hornung knew little about the racial-makeup of the team. More than fifty percent of Notre Dame football players are black. That's a higher number than the national average of NCAA Division 1 schools.

Though Hornung squirmed off the racial hot seat by apologizing for his crack, colleges should be dumped squarely on it. Their academic treatment of black athletes is a national disgrace. According to NCAA figures, only one out of four players graduated from sixteen of the sixty-five teams that played in the recent NCAA Basketball tournament. Four of the tournament schools graduated none. So, even if Notre Dame, or any other college, dropped its academic rates to the bottom, only a microscopic fraction of the thousands of black male college basketball and football players would ever don a cap and gown. Many black "student-athletes" will skip through three or four years at colleges and emerge as educational cripples.

But that hasn't sobered up many young black males from their intoxication with sports. These aspiring Tim Duncans in basketball and Ray Lewises in football spend countless hours mastering their dribbling or ball carrying skills with little thought to their future after their sports days are finished. They live for the day when they will sign megabuck pro contracts. Yet few ever will.

In fact, one of the great myths is that pro sports, rather than a non-sports professional career, offers these young men their big pay ticket out of the ghetto. In 1990, blacks made up about nine percent of all pro athletes. But there were nearly three times more black physicians. A decade later, blacks made up about twenty percent of all pro athletes. But the number of black physicians had also jumped. They were double the number of black pro athletes. And that's just in one profession. The number of blacks in other professions had also sharply increased.

Still, in a survey of more than 1,000 black teens by Indiana University researchers the overwhelming majority said that they chose their college, not for academics, but to increase their chances of being drafted by the pros. They also said that they would do only the minimum required in the classroom to stay eligible to play, and if drafted would leave college before graduation.

The sports delusion among many young blacks blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Coaches know this better than anyone does. They wheel and deal to ram as many blacks as they can into their school's uniforms. The name of the game is not study, baby, study; but win, baby, win. Major colleges have a huge stake in keeping their well-oiled athletic assembly lines moving smoothly. It means hard dollars. Major NCAA universities bag millions in revenue from athletic programs.

Some coaches claim that the NCAA's de-emphasis on SAT scores will level the academic playing field, and make it easier for blacks to get into college, and presumably that will increase their chances of graduating or at least of improving their academic skills. That was the implication behind Hornung's complaint about the supposed too high academic requirements at universities such as Notre Dame. But if he was wrong and apologized for it, so are they. There is no evidence that merely having more blacks on campus automatically increases the chance that more blacks will graduate. The shameful NCAA graduation figures if anything prove just the opposite.

The message in this sorry sports saga is that black parents whose sons are involved in athletic programs, and who harbor delusions of pro sport fame and fortune, must hold coaches, teachers and school administrators accountable for their children's courses, grades and campus activities. They must make it clear that if their sons or daughters don't perform in the classroom, they don't get to perform on the field or the court.

The ultimate responsibility, though, is on the colleges that reap fortunes off black athletes. They can and must do much more to insure that their "student-athletes" graduate, or at least better prepare them for a business or professional career. This means providing them counseling, tutoring and financial assistance to encourage them to complete their studies when their eligibility ends.

Hornung's clumsy, foot-in-the mouth quip was offensive and borderline racist, but at least he was honest in stating it. That's more than can be said for the many colleges that continue to do such a miserable and shameful job of educating their black athletes. An apology won't undo that damage.

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