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John Underwood
May 19, 1980
The rash of phony transcripts and academic cheating spells out the fact that athletics are now an abomination to the ideals of higher education. Victims: the student-athletes. Culprits: the system and those who run it
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May 19, 1980

The Writing Is On The Wall

The rash of phony transcripts and academic cheating spells out the fact that athletics are now an abomination to the ideals of higher education. Victims: the student-athletes. Culprits: the system and those who run it

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"It's wrong for a guy to get a taste of the pie and then not get any more. The experience was more disappointing than if I'd never been in the NBA. Like going to the desert and getting one sip of water. I'm 28 years old now. I've always had a plan to deal with my life.

"Right now I'm trying to get enough money together to go back to school. Probably Northern Illinois. I don't care about any permanent job now.

"I can't say in truth that basketball and athletics were worth it. Sometimes I ride through the old neighborhood. I see the graffiti. I think about the things we did. After all the crap, a lot of the time I think, 'Maybe I would've been a lawyer now, or even a doctor,' you understand what I'm saying? I had potential."

The pro myth thrives on an irresistible hype. There are two pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, and their names are National Basketball Association and National Football League. The sports pages are full of the figures to be made—exciting, stupefying sums—on the average, $160,000 a year in the NBA, $69,000 a year in the NFL. Agents who swarm over the games like locusts tell how those figures are enhanced by tax shelters and the like, how their maneuvers result in financial coups for the superstars.

The colleges pitch in. They have to; they are part of the mechanism. Since television got its thumb on the windpipe, there is so much money to be made in big-time sports that everybody cooperates. (When asked once why the NBA doesn't have a farm system, President and General Manager Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics replied incredulously, "What for? We have the greatest farm system in the world—the colleges.") The colleges know they cannot justify their sellout by saying they'll use the loot to give athletes better academic training, so they try to justify it with dream talk. School publicists send out press releases bragging about their ability to place players in pro ball and decorate the pages of their sports brochures with photographs of those who have "graduated" to the pros. Last year the University of Miami shamelessly produced a four-color recruiting poster, captioned A PIPELINE TO THE PROS, that included pictures of those Hurricane players who had "made it."

It is a pipeline to disillusionment and heartbreak. Never mind that of the 188 Pac-10 players in the NFL during the 1979 season, only 66 have their degrees. Never mind that four out of five NBA players haven't graduated from college, that almost two-thirds of all NFL players do not have diplomas. Never mind those figures, because they apply to the players who have "made it." Look instead at the multitude of hooked youngsters who are throwing away their education a little bit every day to follow the pro dream; they are the real tragedy. No one is writing puff sheets about them.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, every year close to 700,000 boys play high school basketball and one million play high school football. On the varsities at NCAA institutions, those numbers are reduced to 15,000 in basketball and 41,000 in football. In the NFL, about 320 college-draft choices come to camp each year; roughly 150 make it. On the average, those rookies who succeed play pro ball for 4.2 seasons. About 4,000 players complete their college basketball careers each year; approximately 200 get drafted by the 22 NBA teams; around 50 actually make a team. The average NBA career lasts 3.4 seasons.

If the odds were displayed on a tote board, no one would take them. Thousands and thousands to 1 against making the pros. Harry Edwards is on target when he calls it "a cruel hoax" and says that it is statistically "easier to become a doctor or a lawyer." He might well add that the colleges' willingness to participate in this fraud is at best shameful.

"We hold out the carrot of athletic scholarships and point to the pot of gold in the pros," says Dr. John C. Wright, professor of human development and psychology at the University of Kansas. Then when the athletes prove to be classroom liabilities, "we force-feed them with tutoring, don't give them a first-class education and turn them out with few prospects except pro ball."

The pro myth does its worst damage to those in the system who can least afford further exploitation—the black athletes. "The myth of sports as a way of upward mobility" for young men like Billy Harris reaches its "true definition in the pros," says Edwards. "There are fewer than 1,000 blacks making a living playing professional sports, while every black kid is busting his butt so he can make it, too." Spurred on by a misguided notion of athletic black supremacy and served a daily diet of pro athletes as role models, "perhaps three million black youths between 13 and 22 are out there dreaming of careers as professional athletes," says Edwards. "The odds against them are worse than 20,000 to 1."

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