Hoops and Ladders
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.
Where their futures are concerned, poor and minority youths are increasingly prompted to take the three-point shot. The all-or-nothing message gets reinforced in everything from state-sponsored lotteries to celebrity-obsessed media. To be sure, America's schools and colleges assume a public posture far above this spectacle of bread and circuses. The NCAA underwrites the "stay in school" spots that show up on children's programming and sports broadcasts. And it promotes its "student athletes" as if the average Division I quarterback embodied the well-rounded ideal man of classical Greece. Public schools likewise pay lip service to the importance of studies. But for children, actions always speak louder than words, even when the actions come as subtext. When schools bend themselves out of shape to accommodate athletics they become one more voice in the chorus encouraging children to kiss off the drudgery of denominators or mole weights and go for the long bomb with their futures.
In most American high schools, athletics now set the tone, establish the priorities, and influence the standards. The poorer and darker-skinned a school's student demographic, the greater the impact. You can still get away with being a nerd in a suburban high school. But inner-city children--especially boys--who take their studies seriously mark themselves for all to see as white wannabes. It probably doesn't matter whether the system is specially torqued to favor athletes or the bar is lowered for everyone specifically so that the athletes can showcase their talent without the tiresome distraction of schoolwork. Children always get the real message, and the message these days is to swing for the fences. The people who are going somewhere from school are the ones who can play ball.
In the clean, spare halls and utilitarian classrooms of North High School, the power of sports to set the agenda is almost a visible presence. If you looked only at the North High syllabus, with its advanced placement and college-credit courses, you might think this is some sort of high-powered prep school honing over-achievers for the Ivy League and the professions. But in her 10th grade English and African American literature classes, Mrs. Abdul Quddoos gets a clearer perspective on the difference between what is available for the dedicated few and what is happening with the great majority of students. "The basic reading level here is very low," she avers. "I have only a handful of students with the reading ability to work at the level on which I would like to conduct my classes. It's very frustrating for good students to feel challenged at all."
Much of the problem, she believes, is attributable to an atmosphere in which athletics is valued to the exclusion of almost everything else. And it starts, she says, from the top down. "There is an over-emphasis on sports even among many teachers."
Do teachers actually bend their standards or otherwise make exceptions for athletes? Of course, claims Abdul Quddoos. "The emphasis on sports may cause teachers to overcompensate in any of several ways: 'Oh, this person has so many pressures, I'll make allowances on his work.' Or maybe, 'I'll make an extra effort with this person because he's going to get a college scholarship.'
"What's really sad," she says, "is that the focus on sports is so single-minded that even those kids who successfully combine athletics and academics get nowhere near the recognition of those who simply excel at sports." And as proof of her proposition, she points to two young men who happen to be sitting in her class during homeroom.
Javonte Adams is only a sophomore, and there is still some baby fat on his cherubic face, but his broad, solid body already has college lineman stamped all over it. He is the kind of kid football coaches drool over--not that he'll necessarily need an athletic scholarship. He carries a 4.0 grade point average, and he is achingly modest and level-headed. He plans to study business and marketing; maybe some day he'll start his own company. For one so young, he seems unnaturally rationalistic in his dreams. In a school with too many kids full of ill-conceived aspirations, you want to shake this one's broad shoulders and tell him to go for the gusto. And when asked what he would study if he didn't have to worry about making a living, he admits that he's really fascinated by art and acting and singing.
Imagine that. A kid whose dreams aren't all wound around the NFL or the NBA. And he shares Abdul Quddoos's feelings about the school's distorted value system. "It's frustrating. I get a lot more recognition among my friends for playing football than I do for what I've accomplished in the classroom. And we had a lousy football team last year."
The other demonstration in Abdul Quddoos's argument is a tall, slender young man sitting quietly apart from the homeroom hubbub, chair propped against the wall. He is, it turns out, Jabbar Washington, the Polars' slick-shooting All-State forward. By his own admission, he is not an academic powerhouse like Adams. But he has easily met the NCAA requirements on the ACT, and according to Abdul Quddoos he is a hard worker. In fact, his grades are good enough for him to have received a full athletic scholarship at Cal Poly. It's a second-tier sports school, but a first-rank business and engineering college. Even if he tears up a knee sometime in the next few years, he is a young man who has wrested a realistic future out of sports.
I asked both Adams and Washington if they felt any resentment of the recognition lavished on El-Amin. They, after all, have demonstrated significant accomplishment in other areas and have adhered to the precepts given lip service by society and the school, and yet they have gotten nothing like that kind of attention. Both responded in essentially the same way. As Washington put it, "That kind of envy would be small and selfish. Khalid didn't make the rules for the school or the values of society." Besides, he pointed out, there was a practical benefit to the attention focused on El-Amin. "Other teams usually spend all their time preparing to defend against him, and that often works to my advantage."
As Abdul Quddoos notes, the school is a very small community and could not control who gets the public and media adulation even if it wanted to. But there is no doubt about the corrosive effect the sports fixation has on the atmosphere, nor about what it does to the motivation of students. Even Washington, who is friends off court with El-Amin, let a bit of feeling show when I asked him about the academic requirements for athletic participation at North: "Of course. The standards are way too low."
Against Roosevelt, Khalid El-Amin never does find the range with his jump shot. He spends most of his time performing classic point-guard chores, directing the offense with absolute assurance and making startling passes to open teammates. But you can tell that he is looking for a way to put an exclamation point on his statement, and on one trip down the floor, he spots a chink in the Teddies' defense. One second he is dribbling in place in the back court, and in the next he explodes between two defenders, crosses over with his dribble to avoid another, and launches himself toward the basket. Almost under the rim, he twists in mid-air, reaches back and feathers the ball off the glass.
The layup drops. His slashing trajectory returns him to earth out of bounds and directly in front of a cameraman for one of the network affiliates--there specifically to chronicle his return. El-Amin mugs a bizarre in-your-face gesture on his way past the lens.
But there is more to the message than that. He's only a high school senior, but basketball is already his job, his profession, bound up with his identity. What he's telling everyone is that the basketball court is his school. Out there he is the one who teaches the lessons and sets the standards for acceptable performance.
In fact, it isn't his scoring--a mere 11 points--that finally puts the game away. To a degree you almost never see in a high school game, El-Amin is a conscious general on the court. When North takes possession out of bounds, he strolls casually down the floor like Patton on a tour of the battlefield. Dribbling the ball is automatic and requires no conscious attention, leaving him free to size up the defense, call out plays and assignments, and point with his free hand to the matchups he wants with opposition players. Even when his shot is off, his command of the game gives his team an overwhelming edge. As Jabbar Washington says later, "He gives us confidence; it's like having a coach on the floor."
It is El-Amin's fierce basketball intelligence that finally wears down the Teddies. You can see the frustration and dejection growing on their faces. No matter what defensive alignment they try, he finds its weakness, getting his teammates the ball in position for short jumpers and easy layups. The Roosevelt players have no idea what he is going to do, and he seems to know what they are going to do before they do it. In fact, it is on defense that he finally breaks the game open. Early in the fourth quarter he makes a quick succession of steals that lead to easy layups for his teammates. Finally in overdrive, the Polars cruise to a 20-point victory.
Two months later, while North is casually disposing of Stillwater in the State Championship game, El-Amin provides an even more striking example of his precocious mastery of the game. After one timeout, the Stillwater squad is momentarily confused about which players are supposed to be on the floor, and when the official hands the ball to a North guard for an inbounds play, a sixth Stillwater player is still within the lines of the court. Instantly, El-Amin jumps into the referee's face, vigorously making a "T" hand gesture. There aren't many high school players familiar with the arcane rule that makes Stillwater's momentary lapse a technical foul. In fact, at the high school level it's not something that referees carry around in the forefront of consciousness or enforce rigorously. Confronted with El-Amin's knowledge of the game, however, the official has no choice but to award a foul shot that adds one more point to North's burgeoning total.
How is it that a high school senior can know so much about basketball and so little about the Missouri Compromise or the relationships in a triangle? Put on the defensive about the role of sports in the schools, administrators in both Minneapolis and St. Paul invariably defend the system by pointing out that expenditures for athletics represent only about 1 percent of the total district budget. That is in fact modest compared to some of the flusher suburban districts, where extracurricular activities (mostly sports) sometimes account for more than 10 percent of the total school budget.
The impact of sports, however, can't be measured simply in financial terms, and there are in fact a great many hidden dollars in the sports budget. That 1 percent figure, for instance, is true only if you are talking strictly about annual dollar amounts--and only at the district level. The state subsidizes sports to the tune of more than $100 million a year--a sum that doesn't include taxpayer bailouts of unprofitable sports arenas. A recent Pi Press article noted that of the $106 million legislators allocated to sports last year, $88.2 million was earmarked directly for the public schools. This money comes right off the top of the education budget, and since it is spent on a statewide basis, it never shows up on the books of local districts as a sports-related expense. The sum of $88.2 million is hardly a budget-buster in a total state education fund of $3.3 billion, but if the amount were earmarked instead for staff salaries at a reasonable $20,000 per teacher, Minnesota districts could afford to hire more than 4,400 additional teachers. It's hard to believe that wouldn't make a measurable difference in the performance of students statewide.
The mania for sports nibbles at the education dollar in ways even harder to trace, particularly as part of capital expenditures. A new high school includes the cost of the 50 acres typically devoted to athletics, not to mention the cost of equipping it with everything from bleachers to high-jump pits. Athletics has a similar impact on the costs of building construction. Many high schools are now built without auditoriums because eliminating the wide-span roof and specialized furnishings represents a significant economy. But all new high schools still include a gymnasium, with an even higher, wider roof and its own requirements for specialized furnishings. Throw in maintenance, and maybe a hardwood floor in some of the better-off suburban districts, and you are beginning to talk about real money--none of which shows up on the district's annual athletic budget.
The costs associated with athletics can be even more intangible than that. Many districts carry at least one teacher whose presence in the classroom can only be explained by his success as a coach. Nowadays, coaching skills are almost a standard part of the job description for any teaching opening, and being able to coach usually confers a hiring preference regardless of how good the other applicants are at chemistry or math.
The passion for athletics manages to subvert even efforts at academic reform. Open enrollment, beloved by conservatives out of a misguided notion of how competition works in schools, is now a fact of scholastic life in many states, including Minnesota. It has generated no demonstrable improvement in the academic quality of schools, but it has created athletic superpowers within the high school system. Talented athletes now regularly jump school and district boundaries to play for the best teams under the tutelage of the best coaches in front of the most college and professional recruiters. The tendency of professional sports to colonize high-powered college programs has now pushed down to the high school level. Duluth East and Bloomington Jefferson dominate large-school hockey. In basketball, Hopkins and North are perennial powers. Sports-crazy Stillwater and Rochester Mayo are also chronic contenders in several sports, from girls' basketball to football and skiing.
Athletes also receive extensive support outside the school system. The minute an urban youth displays unusual athletic ability, he is plugged into an extensive network run by private groups, professional sports organizations, and, of course, college athletic programs. Most successful college coaches run a battery of weekend clinics and summer camps for talented youngsters. It's the first step in the ritual mating dance of recruiting, an opportunity for young athletes to get top-drawer training and become friendly with the coach, and a chance for the coach to assess and woo the talent pool. The best high school players also have a chance to perfect skills in a variety of amateur leagues that range from American Legion baseball to high-powered Amateur Athletic Union teams. If an infrastructure this elaborate locked on target every time an inner-city kid did well on a math test, African Americans would be stereotyped as natural physicists.
Instead, what comes out of the system is a small group of youngsters who manage to buck the athletic tide, a lot with no useful skills at all, and a very few with advanced and specialized expertise in sports. Khalid El-Amin is simply one of this handful of youngsters with athletic skills and knowledge beyond their years. Before he finally passed the ACT this spring, rumors circulated in the Twin Cities dailies that if he couldn't hack the test, he would follow a growing trend among academically deficient high school "superstars" by declaring himself available for the NBA draft. The practice was rare until two years ago, when the Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett, after repeatedly failing the ACT, signed a guaranteed multimillion dollar contract straight out of Farragut Academy, a Chicago high school that has gained national notoriety for producing nothing but athletes. And for the first time last year, two high school players--Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal--entered the draft.
Neither of last year's draftees has so far distinguished himself. However, sports writers occasionally talk about Garnett as the next generation's Michael Jordan. As every Twin Cities teenager knows, Garnett now has a hefty shoe contract and appears in television commercials with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kirby Puckett, and Paul Molitor. This year he played in his first NBA All-Star game.
Having robbed the cradle themselves, however, Timberwolves' management is quick to say all the right things about Garnett as a role model for high school kids. Rob Babcock, the Timberwolves director of player personnel, issues this warning: "You get these kids who say, 'This magazine called me one of the top four or five players in the country. I can do the same thing Kevin Garnett did.' They should realize that even among [that select group], Kevin Garnett is one in 100,000."
The Wolves, naturally, have scouted El-Amin, and Babcock is quite blunt in his assessment. "He is not ready for the NBA. He should make a concerted effort to go to college. There isn't a high school player in the country this year who is ready for the NBA. The players who are thinking about coming out will not go very high in the draft and probably won't get guaranteed contracts."
But don't lament El-Amin's fate. He is a simply a young man who has specialized at a very early age, but at least in vocational terms it was probably not an unwise decision. It matches his natural talents, and he has pursued his goal with ruthless dedication. He is going to college, and while he may end up coaching or playing in Europe rather than the NBA, given the runaway growth of the sports industry, he probably is among the one in 50,000 high school basketball players who will someday earn a good living from sports.
The true losers in this game are the millions of high school kids with only a sliver of El-Amin's talent, all those children whose imaginations ignore the rule and seize on the exceptions like Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett. Much of the blame goes to the pervasive and cunning manipulation by the media and corporate America. But it also goes to the environment created by the schools. Everyone at North sees the throng of well-dressed white guys in the stands, the reporters and scouts scribbling in notepads. They all see El-Amin's file photo on the sports pages. Every student sees the television cameras under the basket, and they understand the power conferred: When El-Amin decides to make a statement, it goes out all across the Twin Cities. They hear about the agents in big cars and the money and the deals they offer under the table. And nowadays they see the occasional classmate turn into a millionaire right in their midst.
It is all those kids watching from the stands who pay the price for our obsession with sports. The real losers are those millions of children endlessly thumping basketballs on asphalt, Air Jordans on their feet, Starter jackets on their backs and pseudo-patriotic motivational tapes from Nike and Reebok looping endlessly through their brains: This is America, kid. Don't let anybody put you down. You can have the dream. The money, the fame, the women, the cars. All you have to do to be like Mike is want it bad enough and wear the right gear.
Clem Haskins's secretary doesn't bother to hide her wonderment. "Your timing must be incredible," she says when I call to verify some boilerplate facts from an interview with the Gophers' coach. "It's been crazy around here, and he's being [very selective] about who he talks to." Left barely unstated is her amazement that he's bothering to talk to a reporter from the local alternative press.
Actually, my timing wasn't that good. Haskins called back--twice. What she's not taking into account is that CBS and Sports Illustrated want to talk to him about basketball, and City Pages wants to talk about the place of athletics in the education of children, especially minority children. Let's be clear about this: Clem Haskins considers himself more than just a basketball coach.
Haskins was the media event of this year's NCAA basketball tournament. The horde of sportscasters, commentators, and reporters who swarm over the event thought they were interviewing the College Coach of the Year and then the first man to take Minnesota to the Final Four. They were stunned, a bit embarrassed for him, then ultimately enchanted when Haskins made it apparent that he thought his place in history went beyond this year's basketball accomplishments. He staked an open claim to being not just a coach but an educator and a pioneer of the civil rights movement (sports division) in his own right.
It is a claim with some merit. As the first black student in his Kentucky high school, Haskins experienced old-fashioned Jim Crow abuse, everything from spittle and curses to beatings. He couldn't play basketball at the University of Kentucky because Adolph Rupp, the school's legendary (and still-revered) coach, was also a virulent racist, but Haskins did become the first black player at Western Kentucky. From there he went on to be the first African American in every coaching position he has ever held. He still regards it as an important part of his vocation to give a chance and helping hand to the kind of underprivileged youth he once was himself.
A few years ago, when the college presidents staged a palace revolt at the NCAA convention and raised the academic qualifications for scholarship recipients from abysmally to merely low, Haskins was one of the most outspoken critics of the change. Along with other members of the Black Coaches Association, Haskins argued that whatever the intent of the new regulations, the effects were racist and discriminatory.
"We recruit a lot in the small towns of the South," he says. "Many of the schools there have no labs and no advanced math classes. The kids who attend them can't be competitive on standardized tests. Those are the kids who should have a chance to go to college and [if they don't seize the opportunity] to fail there."
The crux of this argument is that somehow it is still overwhelmingly the fault of the schools and the broader (white) community that minority children, especially blacks, don't perform in the classroom. "In the past two decades, schools in America haven't improved enough to justify continuing to raise standards."
Haskins is talking about college admissions, but variations on that argument have long been used to justify low standards within public schools. A lot of kids, goes the theory, are only in school for sports, and they will simply drop out if you raise any academic impediments to participation. It's an odd proposition which says that school should be tailored for the few determined to get the least out of it. It is often buttressed, however, by social expediency: In both the poorest of ghettoes and rural areas, perhaps the most real purpose of schools is to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble for six hours a day. The losers in this line of reasoning--as always--are all those kids who actually would buckle down and learn if they knew they had to.
But raising standards presents a real and immediate threat to the black community. Children are in some ways more rigid and slower to deal with change than adults, and changing the rules means that a certain number of already disadvantaged children will get caught in the crunch of upward expectations. Since scholarship athletes comprise a significant portion of poor black children bound for college, any change that will reduce their numbers, even temporarily, seems like Jim Crow reborn in the eyes of civil rights advocates of Haskins's generation.
Worse yet, taking such steps looks somehow like absolving the white community of their unconditional historic blame for the problem. Politically, it is far easier for minority leadership to tell its constituency that white people have caused the problem and, damn it, it is their moral obligation to fix it. When that policy is brought down to the level of classroom practice, it means that it is the job of the schools to find ways to foster learning without employing any negative sanctions on those children who won't. This position gains support from a tradition of liberal educational orthodoxy dating back to John Dewey. In summary, it holds that children just naturally love to learn and will do it splendidly if only adults can find the right (in recent years, culturally correct) pedagogical methods.
But there are now two generations of teachers out there who know that for most children, the joy of learning happens only after they have accepted the inevitability of real sanctions for not doing it. For children, just like adults, accomplishment includes a great deal of routine drudgery, and it is unrealistic to expect the young to perform purely out of strength of character or for the sake of long-term goals. Unless there are negative consequences he can clearly understand, no child will sit at the kitchen table and master the multiplication tables if he is allowed to spend the evening shooting hoops with his buddies. If you wait for the child to raise his own performance before raising standards, neither is likely to go up.
But that's the sticking point for many people in Haskins's generation, both sports and civil rights leaders. What is thoroughly unpalatable is the fact that whites bear complete historic responsibility for minority educational problems, but those problems cannot be fixed without real--if short-term--sacrifices by the victims.
When it is suggested to Haskins that raising performance and standards go hand in hand, not in sequence, he does not entirely disagree, qualifying what has been his standard position on the subject. "I'm not totally opposed to higher standards, but let's not make it difficult for those high-risk kids who don't have the opportunities. I was a high-risk kid myself, and school was very hard for me."
But he also worked very hard at school. And at North High, while the classroom equipment isn't what it could be, they do have labs and computers, as well as the advanced courses needed to do well in college or on standardized tests. Abdul Quddoos certainly isn't buying the notion that the school can't offer the student what is needed to compete. "Students can get an education and they can achieve here." You can even do it and play sports, as Javonte Adams and Jabbar Washington have done. The problem is not what's available but that the district doesn't demand that students make good use of it.
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.
Of course. Jabbar Washington is right. The academic standards for athletic participation are way too low. Officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul will tell you emphatically that their standards for athletic participation are much higher than those of other large metropolitan areas. But in Minnesota the statewide academic standard for participation in athletics is "minimum progress"--you don't even have to be passing your courses. Maybe there are no Farragut Academies in the Twin Cities, but you can do as poorly as Kevin Garnett on the ACT and still be eligible to play basketball in Minneapolis public schools.
The situation is scarier than that. According to MPS Athletic Director John Washington, "If you look at Minneapolis's standards, they are higher than any other district in the area. I am constantly under pressure from other athletic directors to lower our standards." He is saying that while most metro districts require a "D" average for athletic participation, the Minneapolis schools require a "C" average.
Grades are relative by district, school, even teacher, but that frames a basic question neatly enough: How can a student be doing "C" work at the senior level in the Minneapolis Public Schools and be unable to score 17 on the ACT? After all, a 17 doesn't get you into medical school. In truth, any minimally competent student should be able to score that high by the end of the junior year at the latest.
The more I asked that question, the more it seemed like the right one. In 15 years of reporting on education, I've never encountered any issue that seemed so sensitive among administrators at the building and district level. Athletic Director John Washington maintained there was no problem. No one else would talk about it at all. Superintendent Peter Hutchinson, the management guru from the Public Strategies Group consultants, has made something of a fetish of an open-door policy toward parents, the public, and the press. On occasion, he's allotted City Pages more than an hour of his time on general educational subjects. After a week of phone calls requesting five minutes on this subject, Hutchinson remained unavailable for comment. Likewise, after multiple phone requests to answer a few questions about the role of athletics in public education, North principal Birch Jones, cornered in the halls, flatly declared, "I have no opinions on that subject."
Clem Haskins is by no means the only one for whom the increasing domination of athletics in education represents a conflict of interest. Consider the lobbies aligned on this issue: the coaching profession and the sports industry, school administrators, civil rights leadership and the redneck-jock-fan contingent--what writer Philip Wylie called "the offal in the bleachers." Odd bedfellows indeed. The hegemony of sports in the schools is a festering, growing problem precisely because the leadership of a great many powerful constituencies have oxen to be gored.
What's interesting--and embarrassing for the leadership on this issue--is that the few voices calling for change are coming up from the ranks. A black teacher here; a student there; even an athlete or two. And make no mistake about it: There were red faces in the administrative offices of the Minneapolis Public Schools when Arlene El-Amin pulled her son off the North basketball team. It's hard to talk about your high scholastic standards with a straight face when the parents of the district's best athlete yank him off the court in dissatisfaction with his academic progress.
Not that anything is likely to change soon. There are simply too many entrenched interests. But getting away from intractable problems is one reason they play the games. And at least out on the hardwood, Minnesota's season of basketball mania (amateur division) came to a reasonably gratifying and symmetrical conclusion on Saturday, March 29. That afternoon, Khalid El-Amin, showboating before a national television audience, helped to direct his Eastern teammates to victory over the Western All-Stars in the McDonald's High School All-America game. Later that evening, Minnesota's Golden Gophers eventually succumbed to Kentucky's tenacious defense in the semifinal round of the Final Four. Lacking a fully healthy blue-chip point guard, the Gophers were unable to break Kentucky's full-court press, turning the ball over 15 times in the first half alone. With El-Amin's choice of colleges still up in the air, hoop freaks all over Minnesota must have been sharing the sentiments expressed on a fan placard at the high school finals: We Can Hope.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.