Verbum Dei takes
pride in its toughness. Every new student is tested and must go to summer
school before his first year at Verbum Dei. "If you can't read, you can't
get in," says James. "It's too late for you then. It's ridiculous for a
college to take a kid who reads at the third-grade level. It's too
discipline is rigid. No tennis shoes in class, no blue jeans. No alcohol, no
smoking, no radios, no tape recorders on the school premises. No gum chewing or
candy or food on campus. Everybody wears a tie. "Kids say, 'Why I got to
wear a tie?' 'Because we have external discipline. You can't make these
decisions for yourself.'
"There is a
five-man disciplinary board and daily monitoring. We make locker checks. We let
them know we're watching. I tell them, 'I love you, but you do something wrong,
I'll punish you.' If they have any complaints, I make them write them out—in
legible English. They hate it, but they do it.
"We have a
responsibility at Verbum Dei. Black male tradition has had its problems in our
society. So we tell them, 'Look, you've got to get off your ass. Your mother
and daddy might not be together, you might be living with your grandma. That's
O.K. We can deal with that. But when you go into the classroom, you can't say,
"I want all kinds of attention now." The hell with that. The teacher
can't teach because you want attention.'
"And we have
to keep preaching that and preaching that and preaching that. People have died
so these kids can go to school. To be unproductive is a sin.
"The joy I
get from teaching at Verbum Dei isn't seeing a kid get a basketball
scholarship. It's knowing that when he gets it he can do something with it.
That he can cope with the college environment—he can read, he can handle
himself. Take the cases of some of the best basketball players we've ever had
here. David Greenwood got his history degree at UCLA last year. Roy Hamilton
got his in theater. Rickie Hawthorne got his in economics at Cal. They were
challenged in high school.
"You judge a
school or a college by the way it helps a kid become the person he should be.
The school that lets a kid slide and gives him a B-plus isn't helping him. I'm
from Louisiana. I know what it means to ask for a job and have a guy spit on
you. But I'm not bitter, because the situation has changed. Kids have an
opportunity today. They can get into college, choose a major, get a
scholarship, get financial aid, get a tutor, get a part-time job. They can
better the quality of their lives.
"I have no
use for colleges that 'protect' athletes—keep them from this or that course, or
this or that professor. People say, 'The experience is enough, just being on
campus is enough.' It's not. The athlete needs that piece of paper. If all he's
going to see for four years is the gym, it's no good."
Father James is
program director of the Los Angeles branch of the Chicago-based Athletes For
Better Education. Unquestionably, young athletes need more men like James
calling scholastic signals and more schools like Verbum Dei to call them in.
They also need more organizations like Athletes For Better Education.
AFBE is now
nearly four years old. The brainchild of educator and former Princeton
basketball player Chick Sherrer, it is a non-profit organization with an annual
budget of more than $500,000, 50% of which comes from fund-raising events and
the rest from contributions from United Way, government agencies and 40 private
corporations and foundations. In Chicago its big activity is a two-week summer
camp at a local college where 125 or so of the city's top high school players
mix basketball with daily four-hour doses of reading and writing and two hours
of counseling. AFBE charts the players' physical and cerebral progress and
publishes an annual booklet that summarizes each youngster's potential. The
booklet goes out to college recruiters.