Black professional athletes say they are underpaid, shunted into certain stereotyped positions and treated like sub-humans by Paleolithic coaches who regard them as watermelon-eating idiots.
A member of the University of Houston's coaching staff once made the mistake of telling Halfback Warren McVea, "I think this university's athletic program has been pretty damn good to you." McVea, a short, black artillery shell of a man, snapped back, "I think I've been pretty damn good to this university. I want you to remember one thing: you came to me, I didn't come to you."
"People say, 'Wasn't football good to you?' " recalls Jim Parker, retired All-Pro lineman of the Baltimore Colts. "I say, 'Hell, no, I've been good to it." Football did no better for me than what I put into it."
Someone asked Percy Harris, line football coach at all-black Du Sable High School in Chicago, what he got out of four years of scholarship athletics at various institutions in the Southwest. "Well, let's see," the 28-year-old Negro mused. "At the University of New Mexico I got a sweater. At Cameron State College in Oklahoma I got a blanket. At Southwestern State I got a jacket and a blanket."
"Black students aren't given athletic scholarships for the purpose of education," says Harry Edwards. "Blacks are brought in to perform. Any education they get is incidental to their main job, which is playing sports. In most cases, their college lives are educational blanks." And like it or not, face up to it or not, condemn it or not, Harry Edwards is right.
With rare exceptions, the American college coach expects his Negro athletes to concentrate on the job for which they were hired. The aim is neither graduation nor education. The sine qua non for the Negro athlete is maintaining his eligibility. At the end of the last second of the last minute of the last hour of a Negro athlete's eligibility, he is likely to find himself dumped unceremoniously into the harsh academic world. Tutors who wrote his themes disappear; professors who gave him superior grades for inferior work rigidize their marking standards; counselors who advised courses in basket-weaving and fly casting suddenly point out that certain postponed courses in English and mathematics and history must be passed before graduation.
"There is nothing in the world so forlorn and useless as a Negro college athlete who has used up his eligibility," says a white sociologist who, incidentally, functions as a lineman in the National Football League. "If he's going into the pros, of course, that's something different. But how many of them will make it with the pros? One in a hundred?"
Certain truths about the Negro college athlete have been carefully concealed in the groves of academe, and for good reason. Some of the truths are painful, some are embarrassing, some show too clearly the heavy hand of white America. The most obvious of these truths is that precious few Negro athletes are qualified to attend college in the first place. The gulf between the lower schools of the white and the lower schools of the Negro remains a Grand Canyon; many of the Negro athletes who arrive on college campuses never read a book from cover to cover, or had any reason to. They were busy facing or reacting to the problems that confront the poor and deprived. On campus they wallow in fear and confusion for a few weeks until jockstrap alumni and campus counselors show them the various easy routes available to athletes.
These shortcuts, of course, seldom lead to a degree, and that is the second fundamental fact about the Negro athletes in American colleges: they rarely graduate with their classes, and the majority of them do not graduate at all. They are wet-nursed in their courses long enough to remain eligible, and after all the corner-cutting and duplicity and outright cheating, they return to the Negro community as "leaders" and "college men," when in fact they have done little more than hire out as Hessians for four years, or long enough to bring a conference championship to dear old Si-wash. Yet their fame is such in the black community that other black children are eager to follow the same futile course.
The black professional athlete accomplishes much the same thing, although at a greater economic return to himself. His example in the Negro community shows small boys the way. Sports becomes a bridge out of the ghetto. But for how many? The number is terribly small. At the most, sports has led a few thousand Negroes into a better life while substituting a meaningless dream for hundreds of thousands of other Negroes. It has helped to perpetuate an oppressive system. For every Willie Mays or Bob Hayes there are countless Negroes who obviously had abundant will and determination to succeed, but who dedicated their childhoods and their energies to baseball gloves and shoulder pads. If there were other ways out and up. they were blinded to them by the success of a few sports celebrities. These are the Negro doctors who never were, the Negro lawyers who are desperately needed, the Negro city planners who have never existed. This has been the major effect of sports on the Negro, and it overrides all others.