Before he was drafted into the NFL, football standout Bryan Scott was asked by a pro coach why he had attended Penn State. Scott credited a conversation with legendary Penn Statee coach Joe Paterno.
“He came to me more as a grandfather than a football coach,” said Scott, now a safety with the Buffalo Bills and founder of Pick Your Passion Foundation for the Arts.
“Coach Paterno told me, ‘Don’t come to Penn State because your friends are here, because I want you to come, because your parents want you to come or because we have a good football program. I can’t promise you football will work out, and if something happens, I want to know that you are comfortable on this campus, that you are sure you are getting a great education,’” said Scott.
The pro coached listened to Scott with incredulity, telling the young player, “You would rather graduate than win a national championship? Wow.”
Speaking at a panel at Piedmont Park Wednesday, Scott says that exchange was an example of the mixed messages to student athletes.
Moderated by former CNN sports analyst Larry Smith, the panel also featured NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, Redan High school student athlete Akil Dan-Fodio, former Atlanta Brave and Atlanta Falcon Brian Jordan, former Detroit Lion Ryan McNeil and Atlanta Falcon fullback Ovie Mughelli. Along with their successful sports careers, the panelists were all accomplished students; at least two were considering medical careers before they turned pro.
Sponsored by the W.E.B. DuBois Society, the panel was given this question as a starting point: Is there a greater focus in communities, families and schools on athletics than on academics for young black men?”
Opening the panel, DuBois Society president Etienne LeGrand said that many black kids dream of sports careers and their parents support them.
A collegiate athlete herself, LeGrand said that she understands the role of athletics in developing character and teaching team work and cooperation.
But does the black community encourage sports over education? And are kids shunning academic excellence for the distant dream of a sports career?
A recent report noted that while 91 percent of white basketball players in Division I colleges graduate, only 59 percent of African-American players graduate. And according to the High School Athletic Association, only .09 percent of high school seniors playing football — less than one in a thousand – end up in the pros. Among basketball players in high school, it’s only one in 3,400. Among all college athletes, 1 percent go on to play at the professional level. (Here is a NCAA chart on the probability.)
As a former CNN analyst, Larry Smith admitted the media’s complicity, noting the imbalance in the attention given to the achievements of students on the field compared to those in the classroom. “You can’t fit 70,000 people in the classroom. We don’t say ‘Tune in to see the star quarterback go for an A in his physics exam Friday morning. 8 a.m.’”
“When I go to an inner city school and ask kids what is it you want to do when you grow up, 95 percent say, ‘I want to play professional basketball. I want to play professional football. I want to be a rapper,’” said Scott. “Very seldom do I hear ‘I want to be a dentist. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a teacher.’”
(The dentist reference is not without a back story. Scott’s father never planned to attend college as a teen growing up in South Carolina but a coach saw him playing a pickup basketball game in the Claflin University gym and promised him some financial help to attend the school. He ended up going on to Howard University and has been a successful oral surgeon in the Philadelphia area since 1981, said Scott.)
One of 10 children from an African family, Dikembe Mutombo said he never doubted why he was at Georgetown University — for an education. Two strong men made certain of that, his father and his coach.
When his father put him on the plane to fly to Washington from the Congo, he told him, “‘Next time we see you will be when you graduate from college.’ My father did not say that “the next time I will see you will be at the NBA draft.’” said the former NBA player who now lives in Atlanta.
Although he had an extraordinary 18 year career in the NBA, Mutombo said the average tenure now is less than four years. Athletes can see their entire careers dashed with a single injury. “You need to have insurance. It is not just buying life insurance. Your insurance is your education.”
At Georgetown, Mutombo said basketball coach John Thompson stressed to players that school came first. Players who skipped classes routinely could find their bags packed, a ticket purchased and a cab waiting to transport them to a flight home, he recalled.
“I saw more than six guys kicked out after two years or after the first year, ” Mutombo said.
In his four years of college, Mutombo said he missed class once because of a toothache. When he showed up for practice later that day, Mutombo said he ended up sitting in Thompson’s office for more than two hours explaining himself. And while Thompson finally relented, Mutombo said there was ticket back to the Congo ready for him at his locker.
The problem, said Brian Jordan, is that young kids can’t be dissuaded by the numbers on how few athletes will ever attain pro status.
“They believe ‘I am the one who is going to make it. That is what I am hearing from my parents, that is what I hearing from these colleges coaches,”’ said Jordan. “Kids are young. They are gullible. If you are going to sell to them that they are going to be the next Michael Jordan, they are going to believe it.”
As a student athlete bound for Florida International University to play football, Redan High School senior Akil Dan-Fodio said far more acclaim flows to athletes.
“If you make honor roll, your name is put on a list that goes up in the hall,” he said. “But if you are athlete of the week, it is in the newspaper. There are cameras. Your game might be on ESPN. Everybody knows about it. The only way people know about academic scholarships is if you tell them. Every kid wants to be recognized for what they did. You get that more with sports than you do with academics.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog