Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

The sporting press has long since anointed El-Amin the best high school point guard in the United States, and he is, hands down, the most widely publicized and frantically recruited high school athlete in Minnesota history. With sometimes unseemly ardor, Gophers' basketball coach Clem Haskins has been after El-Amin since he was a 15-year-old sophomore, and at one point had a verbal commitment (which El-Amin has since retracted). The U and Kansas still remain in the running for his services.

A nice dilemma for a budding hoops star. But there's been a problem: After taking the ACT standardized test several times, El-Amin has failed to score 17, the not very rigorous NCAA-established minimum for awarding athletic scholarships to incoming freshmen. There is also the matter, as one of his teammates delicately puts it, of "sluffing off" in his classes.

Then in January, El-Amin's parents shocked the Twin Cities' sports fraternity when they yanked their son off the basketball team in frustration with his poor academic performance. Local sports writers were appalled, pointing out that this could damage his position as a shoo-in for Mr. Basketball Minnesota and a consensus high school All-American, not to mention tarnishing his reputation among college recruiters. (For very different reasons, the implications of this parental action also sent disquieting ripples through the educational establishment.)

But all that is history now. El-Amin has apparently gotten his academic act together and his parents have relented. There he is in the flesh, down on the floor high-fiving with teammates and waving to people in the crowd. He's back, and that means the North High Polars have a legitimate shot at winning Minnesota's AAAA high school basketball championship for the third straight year, a feat previously accomplished only by Edina.

To the merely mortal youths of the visiting Roosevelt Teddies, El-Amin probably does look like the basketball equivalent of the Terminator. He is actually something under six feet--short by modern basketball standards, even for a point guard--but he's sprouted a luxuriant beard for his return, and with his stocky build, he looks like a man among boys. Even during warmups, he's the player who draws your eye first. But it isn't just physiology. There is something in his demeanor, in his face. Clearly, this isn't just another game for him. Basketball is his language and he intends to make a statement tonight. That's clear from the outset, but the message is just oblique enough that it takes the duration of the game to get the full sense of it.

He may be back, but he's rusty after missing three games. More than that, using the game as a carrier wave seems to be upsetting his natural rhythm on the court. He's not in the flow of the game. When their leader is out of sync, the whole North team is out of sync, and thanks mostly to their mistakes, Roosevelt jumps ahead 6-0 after the opening tipoff. The visitors probably shouldn't be on the same floor with North, but they manage to hold the lead through most of the first quarter. El-Amin's jump shot isn't dropping and North leads by just two at the half, 30-28.

By the end of the third quarter, North has widened the gap over Roosevelt to 43-37. El-Amin never does find the stroke on his jump shot, but he is just one of three candidates for Mr. Basketball Minnesota on the North squad, part of a spectacular senior trio that also includes forward Jabbar Washington and shooting guard Ozzie Lockhart. Tonight Washington is on fire, pouring in 25 points with delicate jump shots from every corner of the floor.

A great many people assume otherwise, but there is nothing natural or inevitable about the conjunction of sports and education. America is the only country where it is seen as a primary obligation of educational institutions to field athletic teams for inter-school competition. It's not inevitable, and for at least a half century it has been apparent that these roles often come into conflict.

As early as 1969, author Jack Olsen, then a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, was decrying the institutionalized hypocrisy that turned major college athletic programs into thinly disguised farm teams for professional sports. Universities like Oklahoma, Nebraska, and UCLA used and discarded hundreds of poor minority youths for every one sent on to a successful professional career as a shortstop, tight end, or power forward. The individual stories were heartbreaking indeed: young black athletes casually abandoned without a degree, a future or even minimal literacy. But the subsequent quarter century has shown that the actual price is much higher. The real problem with America's melding of big-time athletics with education is not what it does to athletes, or even how it corrupts institutions of higher learning. The real impact occurs below the college level, and its principal effect is on the millions of children--especially minority children--not blessed with unusual athletic ability.

A recent survey by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society found that one third of all white males age 13-18 actually believe they can earn a living as professional athletes. Even more startling was the finding that among black males in this age group, twice as many--66 percent--hold the same conviction. Of statistical necessity, this number includes several million minority youths not tall or strong or talented enough to make even their high school sports teams.

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