Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

For Haskins, this is actually no simple problem. He is keenly aware that "a generation of uneducated children is being raised on the myth that all you have to do is sink the three-point shot and you can make a million dollars in the NBA." And he wants you to know that education is an important part of both his professional and personal agenda. "When I came to Minnesota, the basketball program was a shambles. They had graduated two kids in the previous 20 years. Since I've been here, the graduation rate has been 70 or 75 percent." (He's close to right. The University claims to have no records for the pre-Haskins era, and according to Elayne Donahue, Deputy Director of Academic Counseling, the graduation rate under Haskins is actually 67 percent. That is still, however, well above the average for Division I schools, whose rate of graduating scholarship athletes has hovered in the 40 to 50 percent range for the past decade.)

He goes out of his way to interject the fact that his own children scored comfortably in the mid-20s on the ACT. "Of course," he notes, "they went to the best schools and had parents who cared about education." You see his point. But when he's pushed about the real message that low standards send to all those underprivileged children who aren't good athletes, Haskins tends to back and fill, trying to make a distinction between those who simply don't have the educational advantages available to suburban white kids and those who fail to take advantage of legitimate opportunities. "Kids who just skip class and don't do the work ought to have to pay the consequences. Otherwise," he adds, "they won't understand the importance of education."

But of course if you are recruiting in the real world and on a national scale, there simply is no practical way of distinguishing between the kid who genuinely deserves a break and the kid who has squandered legitimate educational opportunities in pursuit of the sports jackpot. The truth is, even if you suspect that you are dealing with the latter, the pressures of big-time coaching leave you no choice but to run after the "blue chipper" regardless of whether he is serious about getting an education.

Listening to Haskins's self-portrait of the coach as a young student athlete, I am reminded of Khalid El-Amin's teammate, Jabbar Washington. But when I ask if the Gophers ever had any interest in Washington, Haskins's response is, "Who?" Washington may be a fine and deserving young man, but the fact is with a Khalid El-Amin on your squad, you're a favorite to win several more Big Ten championships. You might even make it to the championship game at the Final Four. And it's Khalid El-Amin that Haskins has been pursuing for three years.

Perennial basketball powers like UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgetown have all but abandoned the pretense of educating minority youths through athletics. Commentators on CBS's NCAA tournament coverage spoke unblushingly of "the alternative vocational route" now being pursued by the country's best young athletes. They arrive on campus with NBA dollar signs in their eyes, take specially tailored no-brainer majors to maintain academic eligibility, get professional level coaching and competition, show their stuff to NBA scouts, and when their bodies fill out by the end of their sophomore or junior year, declare themselves available for the draft and leave college. And as anyone knows who has watched an NBA post-game interview, most of them still can't make a subject agree with a verb.

Haskins's success this year revealed once again Minnesota fans' ravenous appetite for a sports winner, and leaves him with the problem of fulfilling some very high expectations. If he wants to compete regularly at the NCAA tournament level--and he talks as if he plans to--this new specialized sports mercenary is the kind of young man he will have to recruit. Kentucky, which lost four such players to the NBA draft last year, still had enough spare horses to make it to the championship game, where it lost in overtime to Arizona.

The times have changed. As much as Clem Haskins may wish to believe otherwise, he is no longer recruiting younger versions of himself. In the sports stratosphere where he wants to take Gophers basketball, he will be forced to recruit from this show-me-the-money generation of nascent professionals. If he is successful, he will find it extremely difficult to maintain that 67 percent graduation rate. Of the teams at the Final Four this year, only Minnesota had more than one senior in its starting lineup.

The role of sports in ethnic communities has changed in the 50 years since people like Jackie Robinson--and Clem Haskins--were breaking the color line. Historically, sports were the only way up for minorities. They were also a source of legitimate pride as the one field in which they were able to prove that they could compete evenly with whites. Now athletics has become a snare for the young, especially minority youths, holding out the illusory promise of achieving fame and riches through play rather than hard work. This new reality makes it increasingly difficult to be the head of a major athletic program without being a part of the problem Haskins believes it has been his life's work to help overcome.

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