Ten years ago Buford would have breezed his way right out of the Kansas City ghetto and into any one of several dozens of colleges that wooed him. Nowadays standards have been tightened, and it will not be so easy for him to attend any college at random. But attend he will, for Buford represents too great a temptation to certain American schools that are selling themselves to the public on the basis of their athletic reputations. Some institution will yield to the temptation, and Buford, with his woodworking credits and his slow reading speed and his near inability to write will wind up posing as Joe College, while the campus intellectuals cluck around him and brag about how democratic their school has become and point Buford out on Brotherhood Day and say, "See? There's the proof. Except for his color, he's just like you and me."
Buford represents an extreme, but by no means can he be considered atypical. Every year hundreds of Robert Bufords find themselves on campuses, drowning in problems: money, where to get it, how to handle it; schedules, how to meet them; temptations, how to avoid them; classes and homework and meetings and chalk talks, and practice, practice, practice. Do most of them learn how to solve the problems? No. The gulf is too wide. Most Negro athletes remain on the black side forever.
Coaches go through triple agonies trying to shepherd their black athletes across the gulf and seldom succeed, and for their troubles they usually have only themselves to blame. Coaches are paid to win, not to solve social problems. If a Negro with straight D's in electric shop can run the 100 fast enough there is always a coach willing to recruit him. And when the trouble starts it is the fault of the Negro—inherent in the race—never the school.
In every college that recruits Negroes financial problems are commonplace. To the average Negro, perched way across there on the other side of the gulf, money is another country. He knows as much about handling cash as the average white student knows about handling coatimundis; they are equally rare in their cultures. "Here's a kid that came to this university without a dime," says a track coach about a black world-class athlete. "Now he has a 1966 car. His apartment is great. He spends $30 or $40 every chance he gets. He's got the very best of clothes. He's got two television sets. Big ones. Consoles! He bought a $550 RCA stereo. I slip the kid money whenever I can. I made him money on the indoor circuit. I'm not supposed to, but I did. He wants everything, but he hates to pay the price. So he's up to his ears in debt." In a word, the athlete knows nothing about money. He is handling it for the first time. He is like a looter standing in front of a broken pawnshop window. His needs are greater than his sense of responsibility. With the poor, it comes with the territory.
Harry Edwards says, "You talk about accepting responsibility. Well, I say to you, you take a new-born black child and you put him in a big, black box with a closed black top, and you open up that top when he's 21 and you say, 'Now, boy, you try to do my work!' Is it fair to expect him to measure up to a white child who you never put in a box?"
Because he has just popped out of that black box, the Negro athlete endures unbearable agonies of alienation and plain fright in the white classroom. Despite all the findings of biologists and anthropologists, most Negroes are convinced that whites are inherently smarter, that the Negro somehow is deficient in brainpower. Negroes are just as prone as certain whites to mistake the cultural gulf for a biological gulf, and they down-rate themselves accordingly.
"The saddest cases of all are the ones that could pass their courses but just can't believe it," says John Novotny. "They are so bowled over by the white kids and the big words and the academic atmosphere that they give up."
The biggest part of the Negro college athlete's problem is the English language spoken one way in the white culture and another in the black. White students, even the least intelligent ones, develop something of a feel for correct usage, but the most intelligent Negro students arrive on campus talking another tongue; they cannot have a feel for the white man's English because they have seldom heard it spoken.
Morgan Wootten, who coaches basketball at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., the only high school that ever' beat Lew Alcindor's team, remembers asking a white student 10 English questions from the college boards. The boy got all 10 right, but he could not offer the slightest explanation for any of his answers. They just "sounded" right, and since the boy had a white, Anglo-Saxon background and the college-board examinations have a white, Anglo-Saxon background, the boy scored 100%. When the same 10 questions were asked of Negro students they would seldom get more than five or six correct. The answers simply did not "sound right."
"Black English has a different vocabulary," says John Novotny. "The average Negro doesn't speak English at home. We should offer him English as a foreign language in college. The problem begins the second the professor gives an assignment. Many of our Negro athletes have never been required to follow instructions. So the first thing that happens is they fail to take down the correct instructions. They don't even hear or comprehend correctly. It's the white man's language, and they don't get it."