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Now I was eight and very small,
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From "On These I Stand" by Countee Cullen.
The University of Texas at El Paso is a tough place for a black man, but it is not easy to tell where the prejudice originates, because—perhaps like a lot of the rest of America—everybody is busy attributing it to everybody else. The athletic department and the coaches explain certain acts of prejudice, such as clamping down on Negroes who date white girls, in terms of the El Paso business community. " El Paso isn't ready for interracial dating," the coaches warn their black athletes. But when one seeks an explanation from El Paso businessmen, one is told that it makes no difference to them whom the Negroes date, so long as the school wins a few ball games now and then. One wonders if UTEP is following the town's prejudices or the town is following the school's. Whichever, it is immaterial to the 40 or so black scholarship athletes. Almost unanimously, they regard the place as a ghetto. "We were suckered into coming here," says Willie Cager. "I come from the toughest, blackest, poorest part of the Bronx. I won't be unhappy to go back."
All the standard methods of dealing with black athletes are used at UTEP, and in sum they add up to the same old story: the black athlete is there to perform, not to get an education, and when he has used up his eligibility he is out. "The coaches say that education is the important thing and sports comes second," says Willie Cager, "but you soon learn better. They want you to win first. All the sports requirements—practice, schedules, road trips—come first."
Says Dave Lattin, one of the seven top Negroes on the 1966 championship team, all of whom thus far have failed to get degrees from UTEP: "If you played basketball you spent most of your time in the gym, on and off season. You didn't get a chance to spend much time studying. So you'd drop behind your classmates. The only way you could stay in the ball game was to kind of lighten up on your courses. Basketball would average out to about 40 hours a week—we practiced seven days a week. During the season we got no days off. It was just like a job. It's easier in the pros."
To maintain such a schedule and stay eligible the Negro athlete could take certain steps. "You could switch to Mickey Mouse courses, where you don't work too hard," says Willie Cager. "I had to keep taking courses like music and art, and now I'm a senior and I'm 21 hours short of graduation. The worst part of it is that the courses I have to make up are things like biology and kinesiology that I have to have for a degree in physical education."
Certain "friendly" professors can be counted on to assist the athlete, black or white. Willie Worsley speaks highly of a teacher "who understands the problems of Negroes, and he don't embarrass anybody, illiterate or not. Somebody told him that Negro athletes needed help in their grades and we are all making B's in his class now."
Then there are the professors who can turn difficult courses into snaps. "They give the same tests from year to year," says Dr. John West, head of the English department, "and they never have a new thought. They use the same notes, the same approaches. And tests that are returned are made available. It would only be natural if some of these turned up in the athletic area."
Tutors can be helpful, too. Says Cager: "If a kid isn't smart enough or has too bad a background but they need him to play a sport, the tutor sometimes will do his work for him."