If you read the sports pages for more than the scores you might have come across an article about Curie High School of Chicago a couple of weeks ago. It seems that the school’s basketball team, which had posted a 24-win, 1-loss season and won the city’s Public League championship, had the trophy taken away, and its wins turned into losses, because it had played the entire campaign with seven (!) of its 12 players academically ineligible.
From there the story only got stranger. According to news accounts the ineligibility was uncovered not by the Southwest Side school but by an anonymous phone call to the city’s school administration. That body completed its investigation the day the team was to play in the championship game, but instead of blowing the whistle immediately it let the contest go on, because, well, the tickets had been sold and the TV cameras were in place and it didn’t want to spoil the party.
Further news coverage revealed that city teams were supposed to submit eligibility lists before each game, but the practice had lapsed from disuse. It also turned out that the eligibility issue might have been avoided if the school had submitted “individual study plans” for the underachieving seven, attesting that they couldn’t handle high school work and needed special help, but nobody had thought to do that.
An additional layer of lunacy was attained when the Illinois High School Association, the state’s governing body, stepped in to declare that the seven could play in state-tournament qualifying rounds because their grades, while under the “C” average the city requires, made them eligible under its more-lenient rules. But then it looked again and ruled out two starters, and Curie was eliminated in the first round of state play, its season going into the record books at an inglorious 0-26.
Public and journalistic reaction to the unfolding tale mostly was one of outrage—over the school-officials’ actions that stripped away Curie’s victories and title. Like many things these days the issue had a racial twist (team photos show that 11 of the 12 players are identifiably black), and Jesse Jackson, who lives in Chicago, was quick to leap to the lads’ defense. “[They] didn’t break any rules; adults didn’t do their work,” he declared.
“These kids aren’t in gangs. They’re not engaged in violence,” he added, making the curious assertion that in this day and age the absence of vice should be regarded as a virtue.
As the days went by and the blogosphere went into action, a few voices were heard to say that, maybe, the laggard seven would have been better off spending less time on their shooting and dribbling and more with their schoolbooks. People with good memories might recall the Rev. Mr. Jackson making a similar point decades ago when he proposed “learn baby, learn” as a counterpoint to the “burn baby, burn” mantra that was fueling the urban violence of the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
But while the world is older than it was then, apparently it’s not smarter when it comes to getting high-school jocks to view their talents in the context of a broader life plan. The upshot is that for too many the visions of athletic wealth and glory—the “Hoop Dreams” of the widely viewed 1994 movie documentary of that name—is a snare and a delusion, steering kids away from more promising paths for the like-getting-hit-by-lightning chance for a National Basketball Association career.
Indeed, if anything the disconnect between athletics and education is wider than it used to be, and our nation’s colleges are complicit in the development. I refer to their reaction to the NBA’s dictum of 2005 that it would henceforth draft only players who were at least 19 years old and out of high school for a year.
The league did that because it had grown weary of taking the gamble involved in drafting kids right out of high school. That was understandable for an entity that exists to present entertainment and profit therefrom. The colleges have (or should have) other, loftier aims, but opted to accommodate the NBA by setting aside classroom space for young men who intend merely to double-park in academe before getting on with their “real” lives. Thus, we have the “one-and-done” phenomenon that has become the main topic of conversation during every NCAA basketball tournament since the rule went into effect.
Interestingly, the Curie team was led by Cliff Alexander, a 6-foot-9 center who, as one of the top-half-dozen recruiting prospects in his class, is a prime “one-and-done” prospect, and whose signing- day nod to the U of Kansas was televised nationally. The names of the players whom the city and state declared ineligible weren’t made public, so it’s not known if Alexander’s was among them. This was an instance where protecting the privacy of some tarred all.
Hoop dreamers might get a dose of reality if they use their computers to learn about the later lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two Chicago high-school prospects featured in the “Hoop Dreams” film. Gates’ prowess earned him a scholarship to Marquette, where he played but did not star. He got no closer to the NBA than a tryout camp and spent almost a decade in sporadic employment before getting a divinity degree and becoming pastor of a South Side church.
Agee played in junior college and at Arkansas State and likewise bounced from job to job after his college days, apparently degreeless. His latest venture is a clothing company called “Hoop Dreams” which offers t-shirts for sale on-line. He also gives talks to youth groups in which he tries “to help kids to understand that their role models shouldn’t be professional athletes but their parents at home.”
That’s good advice if the parents really are at home, and on the job. Too many aren’t.