Paul Hornung, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, NFL Green Bay Packers' star and Notre Dame Heisman trophy winner, stood recently before the public relations' "racial insensitivity" pit that dragged down John Rocker, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Al Campanis, Fuzzy Zoeller and Sen. Trent Lott.
In Hornung's case, on Detroit's WXYT-AM, he lamented the recent poor play of his alma mater. Hornung's solution: "As far as Notre Dame is concerned . . . we can't stay as strict as we are as far as the academic structure is concerned because we've got to get the black athlete. We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete. . . . We open up with Michigan, then go to Michigan State and Purdue -- those are the first three games . . . and you can't play a schedule like this unless you have the black athlete today."
Well, the fit hit the shan. Hornung stood charged with racial insensitivity for suggesting that lower standards benefit only "the black athlete," as opposed to any athlete who performs poorly academically. Sure enough, given the sting of being charged racist -- again demonstrating the nation's abhorrence to racism -- Hornung apologized the next day: "I was wrong," said Hornung, " . . . I rethought it and if I had to do over again I wouldn't. What I should have said was for all athletes it's very tough to get into Notre Dame."
Yet Hornung's remarks differ very little from those made nearly 10 years ago by the Black Coaches Association (BCA). Concerned about low athlete graduation rates, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) attempted to raise the academic eligibility standards for Division I student-athletes. The then-current NCAA rule, Proposition 48, required students eligible for immediate college-level competition to score either 17 on the ACT or 700 on the SAT (they give you 400 for signing your name and answering one question) and a high school grade point average (GPA) of 2.0 in 11 core courses.
Then the NCAA phased in Proposition 16, which required a 2.5 GPA in 13 core courses (specifically including algebra, geometry and four years of English) and a 700 SAT or 17 ACT score -- but allowed a sliding index scale to accommodate students who performed better on the test than in the classroom. For example, the scale allowed a GPA of 2.0 with an SAT of at least 900 (21 ACT). While the sliding scale allowed flexibility, the NCAA admitted the requirements were tougher, but anticipated athletes would rise to the expectations.
"Foul!" cried the BCA, whose high profile members included coaches John Thompson of Georgetown, John Chaney of Temple University and Nolan Richardson of Arkansas. The organization issued a legislative committee release stating that the BCA "has unanimously agreed to aggressively solicit support outside the system, a system that has turned its back on socially and economically disadvantaged people so many times. The BCA has patiently tried to work with the NCAA, but our member institutions have yet to truly and sensitively address diversity on any level."
To protest, John Thompson boycotted some games, and coaches Richardson and Chaney promised to contact civil rights organizations like the NAACP, to appeal to their "social consciousness."
The black coaches' assumption that the proposed slight increase in academic standards would hurt black athletes, rather than any would-be student athlete, mirrors Hornung's remarks. After all, the pre-Proposition 16 rule hardly required Einstein-like aptitude. Hornung's remarks, however, stand as exhibit A for "racial insensitivity." Hornung gets nailed for wanting to lower scores for college entry in order to increase the numbers of "the black athlete." Yet the BCA called the attempt to modestly raise academic requirements for student athletes' eligibility an attack on the black athlete.
In 1995, pre-Proposition 16, the NCAA ineligibility rate was 16.3 percent for blacks. In 1996, post-Proposition 16, the black ineligibility rate went up to 26.6 percent -- an increase of 65 percent. (The same year, white ineligibility increased 86 percent.) By 1997, reacting to the higher standards, the black ineligibility rate dropped to 21.4 percent. It appears, when properly motivated, black student-athletes raise their game -- on and off the field.
Emerge, a black monthly newsmagazine, issued yearly ratings on colleges based on black student athletes' graduation rates. According to the magazine, at 38 Division I basketball teams, not a single black player graduated in 1998. Note that 1998 grads would have been admitted prior to Proposition 16. And, from 1995 to 1999, Ohio State graduated every one of its female basketball players, but only 31 percent of its male basketball players. University of Connecticut, the 1999 men's basketball NCAA Division I champion, graduated just 29 percent of its team members between 1994 and 1997.
The late Archie Epps, a black Harvard administrator, criticized the eminent university over three decades ago for letting in too many unqualified black students. Epps said, "Harvard was promising these students an experience it could not deliver." Lowering standards hurts. President Bush powerfully calls this . . . "the soft bigotry of low expectations."