By JOHN P. WISE
One Great Season
The coddled, catered-to, modern-day black athlete. Has he no respect?
"No," is the answer you'll hear from plenty of old-school observers. He doesn't care about the struggles that black athletes endured in the 1950s and 60s. And he definitely doesn't care about a college degree because once he puts in the minimum time necessary to be available for a professional draft, he's gone.
But did you know it wasn't long ago that an athletic scholarship was celebrated in many black homes because it meant the first person from him family would go to college? Maybe even graduate and make something of himself? Without the athletic prowess, college was once just some unattainable dream because his parents couldn't have afforded it.
Increasingly after the midpoint of the 20th century, however, black families were celebrating that promise. Young athletes from inner cities across America were heading to college, leaving proud parents behind to hope, pray, brag to the neighbors and count down the days until Christmas break like they'd never done before. Like their own parents had never done before.
"Once a career in sports became so profitable, once it became like winning the lottery, our views on education changed," ESPN.com columnist Jemele Hill said. "A degree is almost an afterthought now."
Added Sirius Radio host of "The Morning Jones" and frequent ESPN panelist Bomani Jones: "We don't view education the same way as we used to. The schools are far less concerned with educating guys than they were before. Playing ball has become so important and so lucrative for so many people that we do what needs to be done to get the kid out the door and ready to play."
But when Jones says "we," he doesn't mean black people. He means all people.
"Yeah, we didn't get here alone," he said. "We got here together with a whole lot of people."
What's that? You disagree? Are there not plenty of white hangers-on, street agents or AAU coaches with their hands out, palms facing a teenage dunking machine?
Still don't agree? Well then what about Jennifer Capriati? Was there an outcry while she was missing school at age 14 to become the youngest female to crack her sport's Top 10? No, she earned a pass because of her ability to turn her prodigious tennis talent into an ATM.
That it's an old example enforces the point even further. Everyone was cool with the pretty white girl who put academics on hold to play the country-club sport in the 1990s. Now that there's so much money to be made, both on the playing field and on Madison Avenue, we're even more comfortable — far more comfortable — with the notion nearly two decades later. Education schmeducation.
Age minimums in professional sports remain such a popular debate that Hill was on ESPN's "Outside The Lines" just Thursday to talk about them. A Google search for "NFL Age Minimum" turns up 3.3 million results. And is it really an age minimum? Isn't 18 or 19 or 20 just some arbitrary number? Realistically, it's difficult to say out loud or in print what the "age minimum" expression truly means. So the rich white men in suits who run leagues and own teams trot out statements about the maturity needed to handle a man's game, the travel, the pressure, the demands, etc.
Those factors are indeed real, but there's some toxicity hidden underneath them as well. So your skepticism is forgiven if you think league execs aren't entirely altruistic in their demands that young athletes get at least some post-high school education before entering their circle.
Yale football coach Tom Williams said the way young people look at money — not education — is what has evolved, particularly in black families. When the average salaries are what they are in sports — not to mention the absurd mega-contracts awarded to superstars — why not try to be a professional athlete?
"I'm not sure a college education is taken for granted," Williams said. "I wouldn't go that far. What's changed has been the emphasis on the money. What's changed to me is the corporate response. The TV money and bowl-game money and the BCS — these things were not created by the athletes themselves. The initial value of an education is still very important to most African-American families, but they also see an opportunity beyond college to make that kind of money."
Former Penn State star and eight-year NFL veteran O.J. McDuffie said his mother pushed him to do well academically, but he thinks fewer of today's black teenagers are getting that kind of discipline at home.
"When I first got to Penn State, I didn't even know if I was going to play," he said. "I had no idea I'd be good at that level, so I was focusing on getting my degree. It's kind of amazing the way things have gotten, with kids nowadays, the whole thing is getting to the league. That is definitely one way that kids think they can get out of the 'hood. It is frustrating because you're trying to tell them what's important in life and the next question that comes out of their mouths is, 'How much money did you make?' or 'What kind of car do you drive?'"
AOL FanHouse columnist Terence Moore said that just as sports have evolved, just as the rewards have evolved, so, too has his opinion of a young black athete, for example, skipping college altogether and going straight to the NBA. Moore said he once favored a one- or two-year requirement because some college is better than none, he reasoned. But now, "if a kid doesn't want to go to college, he shouldn't have to," Moore said. "They're not going to go to classes anyway. It's a joke. Why waste everybody's time and play this game when it's not doing anything? If a kid wants to go pro, and a team is ready to draft him, then God bless him."
"What needs to happen on the other end, though," Moore continued, "is we need to teach these kids that if you pack a gym with 10,000 high school superstars, how many of them will go and play one second of professional football, baseball or basketball? I think it's fewer than two. I think that's a message that needs to be shared with these kids often."
Anthony Buford, a key starter on the University of Cincinnati's 1992 Final Four team, shared an alternative view that suggested the college classroom isn't the only place where a black athlete can learn. Just as lessons learned in amateur athletics can be used in pro sports, they can also be used elsewhere, in everyday life.
"When someone sees weakness or perceives fear in the opponent, you're going to go after that," he said. "We learned that at the park, where there's all kinds of guys playing there. Drug dealers, all kinds of dangerous people. There's always trash talking going on at the park. That became just another part of basketball and you got hardened to it. It just became something you had to get accustomed to. So naturally, as a competitor you're going to try to use that against your opponent. So while the environment might change, it's still the same way in the business world if you're a competitive person. It happens in board rooms every day. You learn to either respond to a challenge or not, whether it's sports or business. Sports teach you to take advantage of everything you can."
And one thing noted sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards knows black athletes can and should take advantage of while they're able is the economic windfall, because it won't last forever.
"When money comes through the door, everything else goes out the window."
Hill said she was shocked at the amount of criticism Andrew Luck got for deciding to return to Stanford next season, putting off multi-millionaire status for at least a year. She said that because of economics, black players with Luck's NFL potential will usually turn pro as early as possible.
"We put so much pressure on young people to make money, and in the black community, unfortunately, a lot of young men are forced to be the head of the household because of absentee fathers or other reasons," she said. "So when they see an opportunity to make money, to get it as quickly as they can, they take it. The idea of withholding making that kind of instant money over getting an education, even though the education would serve them very well down the future, just isn't something they understand."
As sports continue to evolve and the dollars remain big, there's little reason to think that will change.